Cities need connection for climate action

In Philadelphia, officials collect energy use data from schools, hospitals, labs and office buildings, using the information to identify energy and cost savings.

Cities can be the leaders and heroes in our climate crisis if we can build the right relationships to empower them.

Whether it’s because their governments can be more responsive, or because they are becoming so interconnected, cities are playing a prominent role on the international stage in galvanizing climate action.

Starting with the groundbreaking Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2005, city initiatives like the Compact of Mayors and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance are evolving to connect cities with each other to exchange knowledge and achieve economies of scale for new technologies. This month, mayors around the world announced plans to push for investments in climate-friendly urban infrastructure, particularly in developing nations.

But the transformation we need requires more than connecting cities to one another. Cities also need to be connected to other levels of government and to the business community.

Barriers to Action

Two new reports from C40 Cities (Power Behind Paris) (Unlocking Climate Action In Megacities) highlight obstacles stopping cities from enacting transformative climate solutions. First, cities operate within a larger system of governments that affect their ability to act. Second, they rely on businesses to implement solutions to achieve a low-carbon, resilient local economy.

You could look at these as barriers or simple truths, but either way, the fact that cities rely on external entities is important to keep in mind. To combat global climate change, we cannot expect any institution to do it alone.

The C40 reports point to the need for better vertical integration with governments, and stronger collaborative relationships and practices with the private sector.

Examples of Leadership                                                               

Putting this into practice is difficult but achievable.

For example, to achieve its goal to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, Philadelphia had to address energy use in buildings, the city’s largest source of emissions. To establish its energy benchmarking policy, which collects and publicizes energy use for non-residential buildings over 50,000 square feet, the city had to work with local school officials, universities, and commercial real estate companies. The city collects energy use data from schools, hospitals, labs, office buildings and more that can be used to find energy and cost savings.

The city of Phoenix has set a goal to get 15 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025. To reach that goal, it has partnered with the private sector, investors, and the state to finance and develop solar power installations on public and private lands, including the airport, a landfill, and a water treatment plant.

Steps like these can help states implement the Clean Power Plan, and help the U.S. close the gap to reach its emissions-cutting goals under the Paris Agreement. Despite this, cities have been largely outside-looking-in when it comes to serious conversations on designing and implementing state, federal and international climate policy.

An Integrated Approach

How much faster could we tackle our climate and energy challenges if we took a more integrated approach? The potential is great; for every Philadelphia or Phoenix there are a dozen more cities that aspire to achieve similar success.

For these reasons, C2ES is promoting collaborative approaches that result in integrated 'ecosystems' of policies and programs. Our Solutions Forum fosters new relationships among cities, businesses, and states on key issues. We are also helping cities work with local businesses to establish climate resilience plans that leverage both public and private resources.

City-city initiatives are critical to galvanize support for and increase understanding of transformative climate and energy solutions. But putting these solutions into practice will take on-the-ground collaboration with other levels of government and businesses.