Scaling up! cities and their role in achieving the IPCC 1.5°C goals.

Around 9 months ago, C40 Cities together with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate Change, convened the development of the Summary for Urban Policy Makers, a document which not only seeks to synthetize the 30 years of science sustaining the IPCC SR1.5, but as well, tries to frame these findings in an attainable way for city officials, governments, residents and different stakeholders in the urban setting.

According to the report, climate change (unsurprisingly) represents a critical threat to the planet, as the world has already warmed 1.0°C above pre-industrial levels due to human activity, in this stage every tenth of a degree matters as between 2030 and 2052, global warming will reach 1.5°C.  In such a critical scenario, what is the role of cities and urban systems?

A landscape image of Santiago de Chile.
Santiago de Chile/Hello! Magazine

Cities are central in achieving the necessary conditions for curbing the conditions leading to climate disaster. According to the IPCC report urban areas are home to more than fifty percent of the world population, are the site of most built assets, economic activity and by 2050, their population is expected to increase by 2.5 to 3 billion and comprise two-thirds of the world population. Cities are not to be seen just as the nucleus of environmental issues, but as vessels for solutions and potential change.

Climate action has to is more effective the sooner emission reductions begin and some communities and urban areas have already started their pathway to reduce emissions, nonetheless more drastic measures have to be taken, ambitions need to be raised if we want to hit the mark, as failing to do so (even for a short period) will lead us to a world of uncertainty or in the words of the IPCC report “an overshoot will push a number of natural and human systems beyond their limits of adaptation”.

The relevance of keeping the temperature below the 1.5°C, has very real benefits, such as curving the increase of human deaths and illness due to climate change related issues. Keeping the temperature below 1.5°C will curve water scarcity, limit the reach of food insecurity related problems, contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems and this is just what we know, as there is a significant knowledge gap which could be bridged with the help of local communities, governments and academics aware of their specific conditions and realities.

An image of Copenhagen from bird eye perspective.
Copenhagen/The Copenhagen Post

There is no one size fits all solution, climate change is not just pressing but it is a highly complex issue, with a lot of variables to considerer constantly interacting. The good part? complex issues can be addressed with complex solutions, with different pathways and different approaches suitable for different geographies. Not everywhere adaptation and incremental approaches will yield the best results, in some contexts transformational adaptation will be necessary -that is a deep and systemic change- therefore to achieve these change, there has to be synergy between different scales, from the international organizations to the local communities, as these multiple pathways to the future will in a big part be influenced by engaged stakeholders in each level of the process.

As cities keep growing, merging, building and changing they utilize resources which act in detriment of different ecosystems, therefore change has also to acquire a material form, such as green urban infrastructure, smart design, use of renewable materials and leaving aside carbon intensive ones. Infrastructure plays a key role, as it can contribute to shape low energy and emissions lifestyles, such as taking public transport, using non-motorized vehicles or walking.

So, are these changes attainable? Is the urban transition feasible?

As complex as these questions are, it is relevant to stress that there is not a categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to it, here is where a multi-dimensional feasibility assessment is to be develop, so in this way urban leaders can evaluate and identify synergies and trade-offs as well as positive and negative effects of any mitigation and adaptation action or policy to be deployed. As an example, in the IPCC report, urban densification may enhance mitigation by reducing emissions, but increase adaptation challenges by intensifying heat islands effects and inhibiting restoration of local ecosystems.

The best analysis is worth nothing if the strategies analyzed can not be applied, and even after being applied, their value questionable is they cannot scale up and spread. To achieve this, it is necessary to foster strong and effective multi-level governance frameworks, to enable the adaptive and mitigation capacities. Here well-rounded legal frameworks with clear, mandates and responsibilities are central in implementing the actions and policies, as lack of institutional capacities can translate into inaction.

Furthermore, governments have coordinated and developed effective local responses engaging and including communities in participatory decision-making processes, which at the same time in several cases, have scaled up into several transnational climate governance initiatives to share experiences and articulate joint climate change responses.

Addis Ababa /

On a final note, but equally as fundamental than the other dimensions, is the the question: How can this be paid? This might generate fear in administrative units where finances are managed at regional or national level, leaving certain local governments between a rock and a hard place in relation to budget allocation. Nonetheless, just like in the previous section scaling up, innovating and searching for alternative solutions is the way to go in financial matters.

As the report states, new forms of public-private partnerships need addressing as they can help ameliorate financial risk -even at the subnational level- nonetheless, the key element in this matter is being able to re-imagine the current financial structures al local and global scales and find new ways to be able to redirect the necessary funds to limit warming to 1.5°C

Now it is time to act, the IPCC report and the summary for policy makers, have had input from local government from all over the world who are stating that this is possible, as successful city-level climate action strategies are at work today, and are being advanced regionally and internationally through city networks. It is indeed a tough task as mitigation and adaptation strategies need to be properly articulated, nonetheless, there is space for improvement and cities have a primary role in this endeavor.