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UN Climate Conference: Look to Cities for Action

“Reaching a strong deal in Paris starts with us,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, promoting the Mayor’s National Climate Action Agenda, a consortium he co-founded with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Houston Mayor Annise Parker writes Geraldine Ide Gardner . This consortium joins other major organizations like the Covenant of Mayors, C40, and ICLEI in representing cities and regions at the COP21 climate summit in Paris. With good reason. Cities and regions are a major part of the climate problem, producing over 70 percent of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions. In Paris, however, they are positioning themselves as the solution.

But the COP is not the only major global policy agenda that local leaders need to pay attention to. There are two other UN policy development processes that will shape “the new urban agenda” and affect the sustainable development of U.S. and European cities in the coming decades: the Sustainable Development Goals and Habitat III. Mayors and other regional leaders need to pay attention to these processes too, because much of their impact will be felt at the city level. And what’s more, subnational engagement can help ensure that these international processes lead to implementable policies, not just lofty goals.

Over 150 world leaders descended on Paris earlier this week, launching negotiations to reach a legally binding agreement that curbs carbon emissions and limits a global temperature increase. Major speeches on Monday from U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping set the scene for the official negotiators with inspiring calls to action and apocalyptic visions if we fail to act.

What is interesting to track is the parallel work being done by local and regional leaders, including many from the United States and Europe. There has been an impressive level of action and organizing by regional officials, affinity groups, and institutions in both the lead up to and at the COP21, including a first-ever Climate Summit for Local Leaders this Friday at Paris City Hall. European cities and regions have been leading the way in innovative practice for over a decade and their U.S. and global counterparts are swiftly catching up. The most recent example was this week’s announcement that 21 global cities have pledged 10 percent of their local budgets to developing resilient projects and investments. While laudable and impressive, this $5 billion pledge will only make a dent in the climate and sustainable development goals discussed. It is critical that local leaders this week not only champion their individual successes, but also advocate for strategic thinking on how to implement a potential agreement. And cities cannot do it alone. Financing and collaboration with the private sector and national governments will be essential.

Moving forward, local leaders need to focus not just on COP21, but two other UN processes that are shaping an urban agenda. The involvement of subnational governments and civil society is critical to avoid sweeping goals and unfunded mandates that will eventually trickle down to the local level.

The first of these programs is the UN’s recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will guide the next 15 years of global development. Given the critical importance of cities and regions to a sustainable development agenda, there was a strong campaign to have an urban-focused SDG. This effort achieved the approval of goal 11 (out of 17): “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” While sufficiently broad, this goal is backed up by ten specific targets and will also have a set of benchmarks for measuring progress (currently being developed in a follow-on UN process).

Despite a robust outreach and engagement strategy directed toward local stakeholders across the globe, there is increasing concern about what happens next. Who leads action? How it is funded? Many believe that the Habitat III process already underway will provide more guidance. Habitat III is yet another UN process that will create a 20-year non-binding policy agenda for urbanization that will also have implications for the development of cities and regions in the United States and Europe.

However, in both Habitat III and the SDG processes, the vigor of engagement from U.S. and European subnational leaders has been significantly less than with the COP21. Perhaps this is a result of the assumption that the SDGs and Habitat III do not readily apply to the “developed” cities of the global north. But the United States and European countries are party to both of these agreements. They represent a major opportunity to align three sets of global policy frameworks to realize a vision of sustainable and inclusive cities and regions. To do so, subnational leaders must stay engaged after Paris and leading up to the October 2016 Habitat III meeting in Quito, must push for thoughtful goals and realistic implementation strategies, and must continue to build partnerships across governments, private sector, and civil society. As mayors know, a plan without an implementation strategy is just a plan.

Geraldine Ide Gardner is Director, Urban and Regional Policy for the German Marshal Fund (GMF) based in Washington, DC. This article was first published by the GMF.
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