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A trio of cyclists riding down a bike lane in front of a landmark building.
Cyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark. Car-free transit is sure to be a key topic during a global climate summit between city leaders in the Danish city this week.
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C40 Climate summit: Cities step up on environmental policy

At this week’s global environmental gathering in Copenhagen, cities aim to set the agenda

September saw climate strikes, a UN Summit, and impassioned speeches from teen activist Greta Thunbergbut despite the attention paid to the crucial issue of climate change, no transformative agreements were made.

“The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win,” said the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who convened the Summit that concluded with mixed results.

This week, a gathering of city leaders at the C40 Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, hopes to accomplish more, seeking to announce initiatives, plans, and agreements that will make a significant dent in emissions. By bringing together mayors, business executives, scientists, leaders of the Youth Climate Strike, and elected officials, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is giving a keynote address on Wednesday, and Secretary General Gutteres, the gathering reflects what organizers see as the power of cities.

C40, the group of major international cities that have already banded together around making sustainable changes in transportation, energy use, and consumption, believe a coalition of cities with progressive leadership and economic might can show a solution is possible.

“I think Greta is right to be angry, and right to draw a line in the sand,” says Mark Watts, executive director at C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. “Intergovernmental collaboration isn’t going to take us out of the climate crisis. We will need it to get there. But at the moment, the sheer power of science-denying leadership of the United States, allied to Brazil and Australia, are too much to overcome on the floor of the United Nations.”

Watts says the C40 summit will show that, while many leaders at the national level may not be listening to activists and citizens who care about the climate, that’s not true of leaders at the city level.

Transportation is now the largest source of emissions in the U.S., yet cities continue to invest in car-centric infrastructure.
Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

What to expect at the summit

While all the building blocks are in place to make change, the scope of the environmental commitment needed to shift to a zero-carbon economy requires the entire administration of a city to be involved.

City-led action has already made a difference, Watts says. Take New York City’s recent commitment to green buildings and energy efficiency. By setting a standard in such a large and important market, the policy inspires, and in some ways forces, other cities to adapt and follow New York City’s lead. The numbers suggest cities can continue to play an outsized role in fighting climate change: Over half the world’s population lives in urban areas, which produce 80 percent of gross domestic product and three quarters of carbon emissions.

Watts says that at the summit, the third held by C40, a number of new policies and plans will be announced, building on existing agreements between member cities. Right now, a number of C40 members have agreed to zero-emission mass transit systems by 2030, making all new buildings zero-emission by 2030, and diverting 70 percent of waste from landfills by 2030. Watts says that all members eventually need to agree to those goals.

In addition, Watts says to expect a new commitment around air pollution to be announced at the summit, which runs from October 9 to 12, as well as a new commitment around food, both intended to not only be political commitments, but also market signals that can push businesses to operate in a more sustainable way.

“There’s a real passion among the leading mayors of C40, seeing the failure at the intergovernmental level,” says Watts. “I think what you’re going to hear is a greater sense of mayors taking responsibility for their own cities and creating a global movement. Creating a movement where the large number of young people talking about climate see a useful avenue to pursue.”

Why cities can battle climate change

There’s already extensive evidence, including C40 research, that shows how cities can play an oversized role in battling climate change. Late last year, the Toward a Healthier World report argued that progressive urban policy can not only make a significant dent in the problem, but also benefit the economy at the same time.

The policy prescription being advanced by C40 research includes revamping transportation systems to bolster walking, cycling, and mass transit, prioritizing transit-oriented development, and introducing zero-emission districts in cities.

Via C40 pledges and actions, a number of mayors have already pledged to create carbon-free zones, including in Barcelona, Paris, Seattle, and Mexico City. An earlier C40 report showed that 27 cities around the globe have already moved part their emissions peak while still seeking economic growth, suggesting it is possible to combine growth and emissions reductions.

Other recent research has reinforced the view that cities can make significant differences when it comes to climate change. A new white paper by the World Research Institute, “Accelerating Building Decarbonization,” argues that cities can be at the forefront of changing building codes and housing policies to usher in a green built environment. “Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity,” a new report by the Coalition for Urban Transitions, lays out a roadmap and argues that a “carefully managed transition to zero-carbon, climate-resilient cities could help secure national economic prosperity and improve quality of life while tackling the climate crisis.“ There are currently feasible technologies, it notes, that could be adapted by key urban sectors and cut emissions by almost 90 percent by 2050.

In addition, the United States has shown that state and local actors can take the lead even if, with the Trump administration in power, the federal government won’t. Coalitions of different leaders and groups, from the U.S Climate Alliance to the Climate Mayors, while not always perfect, have broadly kept the United States committed to the goals of the Paris Agreement. We Are Still In, U.S. Climate Alliance members, and other U.S. coalitions committed to the Paris Agreement now represent nearly 70 percent of U.S. GDP and nearly 65 percent of the overall U.S. population.

The power of cities, and the success of subnational actors, is why Watts believes now is the time to act. The world needs to be proactive in the face of climate change, before rapid changes in sea levels, weather, and other aspects of the natural world place us on the defensive.

“None of the science is preparing city leaders for what’s hitting them right now,” he says. “Many are dealing with things today that they didn’t think would hit for four or five years. It’s happening faster and faster.”

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