Cities have been doing it for themselves for decades.
Just two years after the end of World War II, “sister cities” reached out to each other, some across still-raw battle lines. Sacks of food and clothes were sent as relief from Bristol to Hanover, a scheme was started that exchanged thousands of pairs of shoes for music performances, and an exchange programme that is still running sees schoolchildren from each visiting the other.
It was just one pair of a blossoming of sister cities around the world that began building ties with each other to rebuild, growing bonds of friendship, economic relationships and kinship that last to this day— some of them, like Ningbo and what was formerly Waitakere City (now part of Auckland), deliberately paired up on sustainability issues.
Now, as the world faces new, existential issues, cities are once again stepping up to join forces, support and challenge each other— and they’ve ramped up the intensity recently.
At the 2019 Climate Action Summit, 40 national and over 70 city governments, representing almost 800 million people, committed to implementing air quality and climate change policies that would achieve WHO ambient air quality guidelines, track lives saved and health gains and share progress, lessons and best practices.
At the same event, almost 10,000 cities of the Global Covenant of Mayors committed to achieving safe air quality and aligning climate change and air pollution policies by 2030.
Two weeks later, at the World Cities Summit in Copenhagen, 35 cities of the C40 network pledged to deliver clean air for the more than 140 million people that live in their cities, their mayors recognizing that clean air was a human right and committing to working together to form a global coalition for clean air.
It’s not just lip service, either— cities around the world are taking bold action that reaps co-benefits, which feeds into the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Some of these were lauded recently at the 2019 C40 Cities Bloomberg Philanthropies Awards, which recognized the “world’s seven best climate projects”. Among them: London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, a first-in-the-world requirement for vehicles to meet Euro emissions standards to drive into central London; Medellín’s Avenida Oriental Green Corridors, a connected network of plants across the city that have contributed to transforming neighbourhoods; Seoul’s Solar City Expansion, which sees the city installing domestic solar panels in 1 million households and solar systems on all municipal sites to spur growth in the industry towards a target; and Accra’s Informal Waste Collection Expansion, in which the city integrated its informal waste collectors into its official waste management system.
On the award, Mayor of Accra Mohammed Adjei Sowah said, “the future we want recognises the crucial role of the informal sector in sustainable city development. Combating climate change requires inclusive decision making which ensures all citizens are a part of the solution, to be acting local to impact positively on global challenges.”
It’s this closeness to the ground that has given cities the impetus to act and take the lead, especially when it comes to the the inextricably linked impacts of policy decisions on health, wellbeing and day-to-day functioning.
“We see Mayors as the ones who are very close to their citizens, and so they are the ones to whom citizens will complain if their health is at risk– they start to feel it. The fact that the mayors, the action is coming from the cities is great; the cities are taking the leadership because they’re the ones that need to respond [directly] to their citizens,” said director of WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental, and Social Determinants of Health, Dr Maria Neira.
She was speaking at a World Air Quality Conference earlier this month, hosted by the City of London, the first megacity to join BreatheLife and commit to reaching WHO air quality standards by 2030.
London is also one of many cities to commit to taking transformative action across a range of sectors that supports both the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals.
This growing subnational ambition and action is significant, because the global battle for a healthy and sustainable future will be won or lost in cities.
Half of us now live in cities; in just 31 years’ time, that proportion will rise to nearly 70 per cent of the human population. A full 60 per cent of the infrastructure where they will live, work, move and play has yet to be built.
Already, cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions; yet, a huge number of cities lie on or near a coast and are vulnerable to climate change impacts.
City dwellers are also exposed to the air pollution generated by the same processes that drive climate change, a near universal experience as 9 in 10 people in the world breathe unhealthy air.
As the weight of the world’s future grows on the shoulders of city mayors around the world and their governments, so, it seems, does the friendly competition among them, generating a virtuous cycle of action.
“You have this capacity to have this intersectoral discussion, we saw it at the C40 meeting, how mayors were exchanging ideas and technologies and initiatives, but at the same time, I felt as well a kind of positive competition among themselves, and this is really very good,” said Dr Neira.
“The one nice thing about mayors versus our national leaders is they like to steal ideas from one another, so they’re quite happy to borrow a great idea,” said C40’s Director of Governance & Global Partnerships, Andrea Fernández, at the same event.
Take Tirana, for example, a city undergoing a revamp in favour of more and greener public spaces and greater liveability for a full one-third of the population of Albania, which has said it was looking at implementing a congestion charging system based on London’s model.
Cities, with their history of being hotbeds of innovation, creativity and agility, have also been more willing to experiment.
An example is Seoul, which has transformed itself as it moved from a top-down, industrialized driver of a tiger economy to a more inclusive, people-centric democracy.
Its struggles with air pollution has made it amenable to novel solutions: a pilot drone programme to monitor industrial emissions and ensure they do not breach air quality standards, the use of big data to optimize solutions and help citizens make a seamless transition to public transport, or free public transport during air pollution emergencies.
Cities are also actively sharing experiences, as demonstrated by networks like C40 Cities and the Global Covenant of Mayors, the former recently launching We have the power to move the world, in which the leaders of 14 of the world’s most ambitious and successful sustainable transport cities explain why they are taking action, what they are implementing, the approaches they are taking, and their advice for other cities.
But to meet their ambitious climate and clean air commitments, and to maximise what is possible in cities, mayors have admitted, they can’t do it alone.
According to a report released by the Coalition for Urban Transitions at the Climate Action Summit, local governments have primary authority or influence over just 28 per cent of urban climate change mitigation potential (excluding decarbonization of electricity).
The report showed that cutting 90 per cent of emissions in cities was possible using proven technologies and would generate returns worth almost US$24 trillion by 2050 in direct cost savings alone— but, it said, “city governments cannot drive a zero-carbon transition without the cooperation and support of national governments.”
Worldwide, national and state governments had primary authority over 35 per cent of urban mitigation potential (excluding decarbonization of electricity grids, which alone would provide half the abatement potential and are typically overseen by national and provincial governments).
Thirty-seven per cent of the identified mitigation potential depended on collaborative climate action among national, regional and local governments.
The report also found that over half of the total abatement potential was in urban areas with populations under 750,000, which often lacked the financial and technical resources of larger cities.
Those last two findings saw a stark example in recent months, when city leaders from across England called for government and the private sector to spend £1.5 billion on a ‘national network’ of 30 Clean Air Zones, which city network UK100 found could see £6.5 billion of economic returns.
London’s government was also feeling its limits, recently releasing a report showing that for it to meet the WHO health-based guideline PM2.5 target by 2030, it would require additional powers from the national government— powers over areas such as construction, the river, and wood burning stoves, said the city’s Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy Shirley Rodrigues.
“So those are areas that, as we bear down on our transport-based emissions… it’s really important that we also get the powers to really bear down on the others.
“So, we have the solutions. We know what needs to be done. We have the popular will; people want us to take action. We have the health evidence. We just need government to put the target on the (environment) bill and devolve the powers to those who want to get on with it,” she said.
Climate champion Christiana Figueres, the former chief of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat who led countries to craft and agree on the Paris Agreement, urged cities to both lead on and shore up support for climate ambition.
“2020 is the Paris Agreement’s first critical test, when governments must come back to the table with better, bolder emissions reduction plans. I urge all of you to consider how you can dock into that five-year cycle of raised ambition and how you will lead by example and support your governments to do more,” she said.
One city that is leading by example is Maine, whose Governor Janet T. Mills presented to the Climate Action Summit a poetic summary of her city’s actions and ambitions:
“We’ve got to unite to preserve our precious common ground, for our common planet, in uncommon ways for this imperative common purpose.
Maine won’t wait.
Cities, long used to pioneering “uncommon ways”, are certainly not waiting.
World Cities Day is held on 31 October each year. This year’s celebrations are hosted by Ekaterinberg, Russia, in partnership with the Shanghai People’s Government.
Banner photo by Harry-Mitchell/AP Images for C40