We did it our way: what are cities doing to lead on climate action?

From raging wildfires to devastating heat waves, or life-altering flooding to disappearing icecaps, barely a week seems to go by without some new doomsday climate record being broken. While it’s easy to despair at the scale of the problem we mustn’t forget all the positive, mostly unsung, work that is being done every day to tackle climate change. Part of that is the many cities around the globe quietly pioneering approaches which provide tangible solutions to our planet’s greatest challenge.

Feeling the heat

2023 will be remembered as the year when centuries-long climate records weren’t just broken, but comprehensively smashed. We are living through the hottest year on record, with five consecutive months of record-obliterating temperatures.

Despite the important commitment to limit the global temperature in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world is not where it ought to be. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published the synthesis report of its first Global Stocktake. This key milestone evaluates progress in slashing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience against catastrophic climate impacts, and securing finance and support to address the climate crisis. It makes for a startling read, showing the world is far off track from the goals established eight years ago in Paris. This is something most national governments already knew.

However, it does provide some cause for hope, stressing that “actionable solutions” to combat global warming do already exist. Encouragingly, data reported to CDP shows that many subnational governments – cities, states and regions – are moving faster than their national governments in stepping up to the challenge.

Cities provide solutions

Urban areas produce 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions through transport, buildings, industry and waste, making them fundamental players in tackling climate change. As such, they are also on the frontline of its’ impacts, with recent data showing that 80% of cities are facing climate hazards (such as heatwaves and floods), and 70% expect them to become more intense.

The other side of that coin is that cities are leading the way on taking climate action. For example, London’s Retrofit Accelerator programme has already supported the retrofit of over 800 public sector buildings in the UK’s capital, such as schools and hospitals, saving almost 38,000 metric tonnes of CO2 each year.

The launch of our Cities A List this month shows that many cities are building momentum in their environmental action, making it mainstream to their operations. This is reflected in the growing number of cities, noticeable in the Global South too, that are consistently receiving the highest rating for environmental transparency and action.

119 cities are on the 2023 A List (which celebrates cities demonstrating the most ambitious climate action, leadership and transparency), and they report taking four times as many mitigation and adaptation measures as non-A List cities. For example, renewable energy use is rising among A List cities, with some – like San Francisco (84%), Quito (86%) and Trondheim (91%) – reporting that renewable energy makes up the vast majority of their energy consumption.

119 Cities have made CDP’s 2023 A List

Local governments are also well placed to engage their communities to get buy in for policies that get us to net zero. Cities designing net-zero policies are finding ways to bring their citizens along and avoid counterproductive backlash – something which worries policy makers at a national level. Glasgow City Council held a Citizen’s Assembly where residents could discuss how the city could reach net zero in a just way. This inclusive approach allows local communities to shape decisions, rather than simply having policies imposed from above.

As several governments around the world are under pressure to inch back from environmental commitments, in this, the hottest year on record, we cannot allow climate action to become a casualty of domestic politics.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic problems arising from it, cities can link net zero to issues that matter locally – cleaner air, cheaper transport, health and jobs – to bring people along with them. Our data shows that climate action goes hand in hand with these benefits. Communicating these benefits and engaging local leadership will broaden support for national climate action.

Looking ahead

Of course, this is no time for complacency. Urgent action is needed from all actors in the economy to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Cities themselves still have work to do. Those not reporting environmental data must step up their transparency, while many more need to accelerate their efforts to reach net zero and create a more sustainable future for all, especially the most vulnerable.

Next month in Dubai, the UN’s annual climate conference, COP28, offers the world a significant opportunity. Cities, states and regions will be at the same table as governments, engaged in shaping national commitments towards fulfilling the Paris Agreement’s goals at the first ever Local Climate Action Summit. City policy makers will share best practice and find ways to work together to enhance ambition and implement action more effectively.

The challenge is enormous, and the clock is ticking fast. Add up all the actions cities across the globe are taking, however, and we have good cause for hope – actions that governments can support and replicate to limit the rise in global temperature. For that hope to spread -cities need national governments to work hand-in-hand with them to reduce emissions and manage the economic, social and environmental challenges and opportunities they face.

Global Director, Cities, States & Regions at CDP | + posts

Maia is the Global Director for Cities, States and Regions at CDP. With over a decade’s experience in the field of climate change, she oversees a global team working with more than 1,200 cities, states and regions on environmental reporting and action.

Maia has led two flagship programmes at CDP - Corporate Reporting and Cities - where she created metrics that are used by over 6,000 global companies, including 95% of FTSE100.

Previously, Maia served as Parliamentary Aid for Environmental Affairs to Dov Khenin at the Israeli Parliament.

Maia holds an MSc in Environmental Policy and Regulation from the London School of Economics and a BA in Economics, Political Science and Philosophy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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