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Three strategies to scale city climate action

05 July 2021

By: Adam Freed, Jake Elder and Charlie Salzer, Bloomberg Associates

As countries are raising their ambitions in advance of COP26 in Glasgow, more and more attention is turning to the role cities can play in addressing climate change.

For urban residents, this is not an academic discussion. As the planet continues to warm, city dwellers are feeling the impacts of climate change. From crippling floods across China to the drought-fuelled wildfires across Australia and California, the signs of a changing climate and detrimental impacts could not be clearer.

Cities are stepping up to the challenge. Over 1,800 local governments and mayors have declared climate emergencies and numerous cities have accelerated targets to significantly cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and address climate change.

Over the past year, Bloomberg Associates partnered with the Global Covenant of Mayors and the World Resources Institute to better understand what cities need to accelerate the pace and scale of climate action to achieve their emissions goals.

Through this global research effort, we interviewed senior city leaders from 58 cities and surveyed an additional 300 cities. Nearly 60 percent of cities surveyed reported developing a climate action plan or starting efforts to reduce GHG emissions – showing local leaders are committed to climate action.

However, changes are needed for cities to translate their ambitions into deep emission reductions; only 22 percent of cities responding to our survey reported implementing climate projects at scale.

Three critical strategies

Our research uncovered three critical strategies cities can use to accelerate GHG reductions:

  • Activate climate action across city government

While mayors are making ambitious climate commitments, these priorities are not always reflected in the municipal departments responsible for city services. Injecting climate into the plans of city departments – not just stand-alone climate plans – is crucial to getting climate projects off the ground.

Leading cities are building a coalition of senior city leaders to act by making sure senior managers view climate policy as part of their responsibilities, not simply because doing so reduces emissions but because it improves quality of life for residents.

Chief Financial Officers (CFOs), for example, can take the important first step by unlocking funding for climate action, but they can also shift city financial systems and promote innovations to ensure climate is embedded across city agencies.

On city management, City Managers and Chief Operating Officers (COOs) oversee city operations and can hold departments accountable for climate progress.

Engaging these leaders requires aligning climate interests with departmental priorities. As an example, the City of San Jose has shifted its Council processes; all Council memos now include required questions about connections to the city’s sustainability priorities. This requires city leadership be prepared to speak to the climate impact of any policies or programmes they pursue.

  • Stress the associated equity, health, and economic benefits of climate action

Even when city leadership is broadly committed to climate action, climate can be seen as an issue competing with other institutional priorities (e.g., public health, poverty, equity, economic development, etc.). In practice, impactful climate policy can double as good public policy across issues.

For example, research from C40 found that public transit investments can create over 4 million additional jobs across all 97 cities in the C40 network and their supply chains in the next decade, while reducing air pollution from transport by up to 45 percent in cities with low private vehicle use.

In our conversations, city staff highlighted their struggles to make a compelling case for investing in climate action above these other priorities. In particular, cities often lack access to the outcome data to demonstrate how climate action delivers on other policy outcomes (e.g., improved air quality, reduced congestion, job creation, etc.). Climate needs to be framed as a complementary, not competitive, issue – and staff need the data to do this.

Cities such as Bridgewater, Oakland and Philadelphia provide some examples to look to. All are laser focused on the intersection of climate mitigation and equity, actively centring their work around residents and people-oriented metrics such as job creation, access to community services, and housing affordability. And they are tracking outcome data to show progress.

  • Take collaborative climate action, at a metropolitan scale

Cities are taking action to reduce emissions in areas under their direct control. But avoiding a 1.5°C increase in temperature requires reducing emissions not only in cities actively engaged on climate, but across their metropolitan regions.

A metropolitan-scale approach solves multiple challenges: it increases local government’s ability to influence regional/national actors, enables deeper action in regional infrastructure (such as mass transit or energy systems), and dramatically increases the scale of impact that can be achieved. For example, a review of 25 metropolitan statistical areas in the US found that nearly two-thirds of metropolitan-level GHG emissions occur outside the “anchor” city.

Some cities are already taking this approach. For example, Guadalajara serves as the anchor city for a broader metro region encompassing nine smaller municipalities. The city has worked with its regional Metropolitan Institute to build capacity across the region, develop a regional climate agenda, and put it on a path for further action. By proactively engaging with its partners and sharing expertise on climate, Guadalajara has now built a coalition that can collectively address larger infrastructure and planning systems.

Cities will play a critical role in reducing GHG emissions and achieving the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperatures below a 1.5°C increase. Meeting these targets will require changes in current practices to accelerate carbon reductions in cities.

Mayors and city leaders have demonstrated the political will and ambition to act, and the recommendations from our research provide a roadmap on how to meet these ambitions.

To learn more about Bloomberg Associates’ findings, download the full report.

Image: Teerayut Khuenwan | Dreamstime.com

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