Greater ambition is needed at the Paris climate talks. That’s the view of the ministers of 196 nations now trying to negotiate a global climate agreement here. The gap is large between what countries have pledged in greenhouse gas emission reductions and what is needed to limit global warming to less than 2 oC above preindustrial levels by the end of this century. If more ambitious pledges are needed, from where might they come?
Answer: Cities. Mayors from hundreds of cities are present in Paris. And more than 2,200 cities and 150 regions have brought action plans for emission reductions to the talks. They are not counted in the formal pledges used to project future climate. But they still matter: Cities are responsible for 70% of all global energy use.
Today cities and regions from five continents representing 17% of the global population announced a 5-year plan to respond to climate change. Their plans include efforts to increase urban climate resilience; deploy innovative financing; and support further partnerships among municipalities, states, regions, and provinces.
That particular city-centric effort is one of many on display here in Paris. The Compact of Mayors comprises 360 cities, producing greenhouse gas inventories, targets, and a means for compliance. Facilitating collaboration between 17 major cities to achieve 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 is the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Today the Cities Alliance announced a goal of producing 100 climate resilience plans among its many partners.
Cities are poised to make a difference. They are responsible for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions and are among the first to experience the impacts of climate change through severe precipitation events, floods, and storm surge. Sixty percent of humanity will be living in cities by 2030, and 70% by 2050, according to the United Nations. Thus, cities are large emitters and they have a lot to gain from greater efficiencies and by adaptation to climate change. Plus, municipalities are more nimble than nation states at responding. Frank Cownie, mayor of Des Moines, Iowa, estimates that “cities could make up to one-quarter of the emissions gap needed at COP21.”
Data from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency suggests the idea has at least some merit. It has assessed the emission reduction action plans of all those outside the formal agreement in Paris, including cities, regions, businesses, forest initiatives, and more, being careful not to double-count contributions. They concluded that efforts from these “outside” efforts could provide about one-third of the emissions gap by 2030. Along the same lines, NAZCA, the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action, is maintaining a living database of city and regional pledges to curb emissions.
Future climate negotiators would do well to formally include additional and verifiable contributions from cities and regions, as well as businesses—and the U.N. should count them when tallying formal climate pledges.
Jerald Schnoor is attending the Paris meeting on assignment for Chemical & Engineering News. He is professor and co-director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Science & Technology. Follow him on Twitter @JerryatCOP21.