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Inspiring examples of urban climate action

More than half the global population lives in urban areas, which produce around 70% of energy-related emissions. Many large cities are highly vulnerable to climate impacts such as rising sea levels and storm surges, given that they are located on or close to coastlines. At the same time, cities are drivers of innovation. National governments and institutions increasingly recognize the successes of cities in the climate arena and are increasingly turning to them for solutions to climate change. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn 4 -15 June, the issue of urban areas will receive a special focus in so-called “Technical Expert Meetings” given their key role in curbing emissions and building resilience. And there will be a special forum on cities and Subnational Authorities.

Numerous cities from Rio de Janeiro to Seoul to Johannesburg have clear, practical plans to reduce emissions and increase urban resilience. A recent report by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group shows how the world’s megacities – roughly defined as cities with a total population of more than 10 million – are fast expanding efforts to curb climate change, such as implementing tough energy efficiency standards for buildings. Since 2011, the number of climate actions collectively taken has doubled to more than 8,000. And there are many areas in which mayors have full power to take climate action, for example in the area of mass transport and buildings.


A number of agencies and organizations are doing important coordination work on cities. For example, UN-Habitat as the United Nations programme is working towards a better urban future by promoting socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements development and the achievement of adequate shelter for all. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability manages the Carbonn Cities Climate Registry (cCCR) is the leading global reporting platform of local climate action. Via the registry, cities and Local Governments demonstrate their power and potential to reduce climate risks and move towards global low-emissions and climate resilient development through the reporting of energy and climate commitments, greenhouse gas emissions as well as mitigation and adaptation actions.

As the Carbonn registry shows, the level of climate ambition of many cities is impressive. Cities like Copenhagen, Antwerp, Seattle, the province of Sienna, Seattle and Shimonoseki are aiming for 100% emission reductions by 2050 and many others with 80% plus targets. Copenhagen plans to become carbon-neutral already by 2025. Importantly, leading developing country cities have emissions reduction targets. For example, Cape Town, the winner of this year’s pdf-icon Earth Hour city challenge, has pledged to reduce emissions in absolute terms by 10% by the end of this year over 2009 levels. And Lagos has set itself a renewable energy target of 60%. 


Cities can set clean energy targets, and attract capital for investments by greening their finance. For developing country cities, the issue of finance is particularly important. In total, only some four per cent of leading cities around the world have international credit ratings. Cities with the best sustainability planning have a clear advantage in attracting capital. Lima in Peru, the location of upcoming COP 20, spent less than $1 million to attain domestic and international credit ratings, which resulted in $90 million invested in a modernized transportation system. Multilateral institutions such as the World Bank can assist cities achieve their climate goals by mobilizing finance to community level projects.

A good source of inspiration regarding examples of urban climate action  is the UNFCCC Secretariat’s Momentum for Change Initiative. The “Urban Poor” pillar of the initiative highlights activities that address climate change while improving livelihoods and living conditions in urban areas of developing countries. In Ahmedabad, a city with a population of more than 5.5 million, commuting options used to be limited. Commuters could either drive, take the over-crowded municipal bus or  auto rickshaws.  The Ahmedabad bus rapid transport system (BRTS) meanwhile provides affordable, climate-friendly public transport.


The Ahmedabad bus rapid transport system

Another great example of city action, supported by a variety of partners and highlighted by Momentum for Change, is the ECOCASA project in Mexico. The residential sector is essential in Mexico’s commitment to reduce GHG emissions 50% (below 2002 levels) by 2050. The expansion of Mexican cities over the past years has significantly increased their carbon footprint. By increasing both the production of low-carbon housing and the supply of mortgages for low-carbon housing, ECOCASA is helping Mexico to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The lessons learned from this project will be applicable to similar countries in the region, as well as in other regions. As part of technical cooperation activities, a South-South exchange with country experts is envisioned.


Building supported by the ECOCASA project in Mexico

Last but not least, there’s a lot to look forward to in terms of inspiring examples of urban sustainability when attending COP 21 in Paris, where the new 2015 global climate change agreement is to be concluded. The mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo is urging the world's major cities to unite in the fight against climate change and to commit to sharing best practices as part of a dialogue to speed up the ecological transition of their economies. Paris is leading the way with innovative ideas such as public housing heated free of charge by energy generated by computer microprocessors performing calculations. The French capital is also focusing on pushing green construction norms for new buildings and on non-polluting public transportation. And with Musée du quai Branly Greenwall, it certainly boasts one of the greenest museums in the world.