Cities must innovate for whole-of-society climate action 

As climate change begins to affect everyday lives, cities must play a vital new role in building public support for ambitious and fair climate action. We must move beyond technical targets to pioneer new approaches to inclusion, institutional change and accountability.

For the past five years, London Climate Action Week (LCAW) has shown it is possible to mobilise the whole-of-society action in a diverse global city, through innovative coalitions and engagement of communities and institutions outside the “climate bubble”.  

New phase for climate action 

Climate action is entering a new phase. Only 10 years ago there was no universal goal for emissions reductions, or a temperature rise limit. No country had committed to achieving net-zero emissions, energy investment was dominated by fossil fuels and electric vehicles were a niche sector. 

Now more than 90% of the global economy is covered by a net-zero goal and countries are aligning around the 1.5°C temperature goal. Companies are competing for green investment and the energy transition is well underway. This year investment in clean energy surpassed fossil fuels and is growing 30% every year. 

Progress is undeniable with cost-effective technologies, growing markets and clear national targets. But the world is still way off track to meet its agreed climate targets. 

The barriers to change have shifted from technology demonstration and awareness raising, to delivering at unprecedented pace across the whole economy in all countries. This requires consistent political support for fundamental changes to virtually every public and private institution: from infrastructure and planning to professional bodies and financial markets. 

As countries implement more ambitious climate policies and protect their citizens from the impacts of climate change, a key lesson is they must keep their public on side.  

Recent political pushback against climate policies in Germany on banning fossil boilers, the Netherlands on agriculture reforms, and the UK on Electric Vehicles and road user charges has shown that climate policies can quickly become politicised and caught up in “culture wars”. It has also revealed that not enough has been done to create an explicit climate “social contract” where citizens feel that the costs and benefits of change are distributed fairly. 

Source: WPI Economics calculations based on data supplied by kMatrix on their Low Carbon Environmental Goods and Services methodology and The Data City, and ONS Business Register and Employment Survey for total employment by borough.

A new role for cities 

Cities have traditionally seen their role in the climate transition as being where the rubber hits the road: where policy intent meets practical action. Cities generate 80% of global GDP as well as more than 70% of global CO2 emissions. They are home to more than half the world’s population and key to solving the climate crisis and protecting people from its impacts. They can show that moving faster is not just possible, but aspirational and popular. Key to this is building the political foundations for delivery by mobilising all of society in support of key structural and lifestyle changes needed. 

Since 2019, London has been pioneering work on these issues through London Climate Action Week (LCAW), now the largest climate festival in Europe attracting over 45,000 people every year.  

The London model 

Established by the Mayor of London and E3G, an independent thinktank, London Climate Action Week emerged from consultations with hundreds of stakeholders. It is designed to be more than merely a celebration of success or showcasing of ideas. Important as these are, its core concept was to harness London’s unique assets to accelerate global climate action.  

London is a global city of 9 million people with over 250,000 green jobs, mainly in professional services. It is a global hub for the insurance industry, legal services, cleantech innovation, major engineering and infrastructure consultancies, multiple international charities, and four world-leading universities, with Oxford and Cambridge close by.  

London Climate Action Week has succeeded in mobilising the international community. In 2021 LCAW became a diplomatic stepping-stone towards COP26 in Glasgow including the first public discussion of what became the “Glasgow Pact”. 

It has mobilised the business community. It inspired London’s professional bodies – which have over 11 million global members from architects to accountants and engineers – to develop the Professional Bodies Climate Action Charter which commits bodies to training for members to help deliver net-zero goals. In 2022, the UN Climate Champions hosted a pathbreaking digital town hall meeting to publicly test reactions to the integrity of business commitments. 

It has mobilised the education sector through the London Schools Climate Summit. Every year, London’s school children follow a special climate curriculum in the run up to LCAW and engaging their MPs across the capital. Similar MPs climate surgeries have taken place across Africa

It has even mobilised cultural institutions, including the Tate Modern, the Museum of London, the English National Opera and the Brit School. The Culture Declares movement was launched at LCAW 2019 committing over 300 organisations to action to tackle the climate emergency.  

A new climate contract 

The Mayor of London has set an ambitious goal for reaching net zero by 2030. Delivering it will not only require new powers and resources, but Londoners mobilising behind it in their millions.

London has made a start in driving whole-of-society action. Our experience shows there is huge untapped energy in institutions and the public to act. London Climate Action Week has provided an annual organising and audit mechanism for city-wide climate action. 

Through its example, London Climate Action Week has stimulated “sister” events in Auckland and Dublin. Each with their unique character and focus. Our vision is for all major cities to develop their own bottom-up initiatives rooted in their unique characteristics. The rapid and just transition needed for a climate safe world, will not come from top-down measures alone. LCAW is showing a new model at work: bottom up and horizontal efforts that generates a new social contract binding citizens and the institutions that govern them. 

Founding director and co-CEO at E3G | Website | + posts

Nick Mabey is founding director and co-CEO of E3G, an independent international climate change think tank. Nick is the founder of London Climate Action Week and chairs the LCAW Steering Group. Both he and Malini Mehra advise the Mayor of London as members of the London Sustainable Development Commission. 

Chief Executive at Globe International parliamentarians organisation | Website | + posts

Malini Mehra is Chief Executive of the GLOBE International parliamentarians organisation. Malini is an ambassador of London Climate Action Week and founded the London Schools Climate Summit. Both she and Nick Mabey advise the Mayor of London as members of the London Sustainable Development Commission.