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CRISPIAN OLVER: COP-17: Cities are leading the way in climate actions
08 December 2011

BY NOW the COP-17 negotiators are on the verge of agreeing on how they intend to address a long-term, legally binding agreement for climate change. While some progress is likely in areas such as the Green Climate Fund, it is in others — crucially in agreeing to ambitious, legally binding global emissions cuts — that the outcome is less certain.

There is one very positive story to be told — cities are taking pioneering actions in the face of climate change. This is important because it indicates movement in addressing climate change locally. Through utility services and planning, local municipalities have crucial roles to play in building our ability to cope with the changes required in the way we use water, energy and transport in cities. And ultimately, cities are where most of us live.

It is estimated that by 2050, almost 70% of the global population will live in cities. In SA , the majority of the population currently lives in urban areas and this ratio is expected to rise close to 80% by 2050. The exodus from rural areas is occurring in part because cities are increasingly cultural, economic and social hubs. The economic lure is an important migration driver for many who seek a better life. The top 40 of the world’s largest cities contribute 21% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). In SA, nine cities account for more than 60% of GDP.

However, this growth has a high social and environmental cost. Cities use two-thirds of the world’s energy and generate more than 70% of its carbon emissions. In SA , the dispersed spatial form of cities leads to high transport-related emissions — the transport sector is the second-highest source of emissions in Johannesburg. While cities have a high environmental effect, they also experience hardships associated with environmental degradation. For example, the cost of cities adapting to climate change is about $70bn- $100bn a year. And 80% of this will be borne by cities in developing countries.

The good news is that cities have the necessary capital, knowledge and technology to curb their large ecological footprints. It is for this reason that more and more cities are becoming leaders in addressing climate issues — sometimes in ways that are nudging national governments to take bolder climate actions. Cities are pioneering efforts to reduce emissions from buildings, deliver low- carbon transport, reduce waste, encourage product reuse and recycling, promote integrated planning and land use, use renewable energy, encourage efficient water and energy use and adapt for climate variability. At the political level, it is interesting to observe how cities are agreeing to collaborate in undertaking concrete climate initiatives. Just a few weeks before COP-17 started, more than 100 mayors from around the world signed the Durban Adaptation Charter, committing themselves to "urgent, decisive, measurable, reportable and verifiable climate commitments". Similarly on the mitigation side, through the Mexico City Pact, cities have committed to actions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in a transparent manner. Since signing this agreement, 75% of the commitments exceed levels pledged by most governments under the Kyoto Protocol.

However, cities cannot make the transition to a more climate-resilient future unaided. Many pioneering activities are being undertaken with limited resources. South African cities, along with their developing country counterparts, face financial, regulatory, technical and capacity obstacles. These need to be addressed to help cities cope with climate change and manage the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Cities face competing priorities and resource constraints in prioritising climate action, irrespective of their socioeconomic profile. In developing countries, the challenge is more acute and is a barrier to scaling up smaller successful projects to a citywide level, especially since service delivery is a high priority. As a result, there are many projects with high emissions-reduction potential and long-run economic returns that are not being developed. Integrated waste management, energy efficiency and public transport are good examples of this.

Another limitation is governance. Research shows that cities tend to drive a proactive climate agenda in areas in which they have a direct mandate, such as in retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. In areas such as electricity generation and supply, with limited authority, action has been limited. Climate and environmental issues also tend to be relegated to municipal departments that lack the power and budgets of the larger engineering services.

City environmental performance has local, national and international benefits and needs adequate national support. In spite of the many obstacles cities are facing, there is an accelerating level of activity. Cities and the people that inhabit them are being far more proactive in cutting emissions and adapting to climate change than the international negotiations processes suggest . This is reason to be optimistic, despite the glacial pace of climate change negotiations.

We are on the path to creating liveable, dynamic and lovable urban worlds. This is the COP-17 good news.


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