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COP 27 shows cities moving faster than nations in addressing climate emergency

London, Glasgow and Bristol are among cities across the world striving to meet net zero targets well ahead of what national governments seem prepared to do , judging by the outcomes of COP27 says Martina Juvara. But global frameworks are urgently needed to provide a clearer strategic plan for the work at local level to integrate with national and international approaches - and enable the funding streams required to back up the actions of urban and regional authorities, she argues

Martina Juvara
25 November 2022
Antonio Guterrez: We are on a highway to climate hell, with the foot still on the accelerator. PIC: Tjark Gall
Antonio Guterrez: We are on a highway to climate hell, with the foot still on the accelerator. PIC: Tjark Gall
 

“We are on a highway to climate hell, with the foot still on the accelerator,” said 1Antonio Guterrez, UN Secretary General, opening of the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Shiekh at the beginning of November. He might have said the same thing at the end of the event, given the lack of pressure being applied to the brake.

Indeed, the science confirmed his dire warning, in the form of the International Panel of Climate Change Assessment Reports (IPCC AR62) published after six years of extensive multi-lateral and multi-disciplinary research.

Unfortunately, however, the COP27 Sharm el-Sheik Implementation Plan , so eagerly anticipated after positive steps a year ago at COP 26 in Glasgow3, actually concludes with recommendations that are the equivalent of fastening seat belts and investing in air bags, as we continue to hurtle towards that climate hell!

The ‘seat belts’ represent the intense focus on adaptation across the whole conference: the open acknowledgment that we have to get ready for a very bumpy ride, even if we succeed in controlling the climate at some point. 

The adoption of the “Loss and Damage” fund, relating to costs already being incurred in fragile developing countries  from climate-fuelled weather extremes and impacts, is really another ‘air bag’ solution: cushioning the impact but not addressing the problem.  

It is a climate emergency fund put forward by the EU , and also supported by the UK, but conditional to no admission of blame , and to broader participation of contributors beyond the usual Western national guilty parties- perhaps including the oil companies and emerging economy giants like China and India.

This step  has obviously delighted many countries already affected by irreparable climate disaster. For example, the floods of Pakistan, involving an area as large as Great Britain where no crops nor building nor infrastructure can be delivered for the foreseeable future. This  has meanwhile also been called a clear warning sign and a wake up call of what could befall any country at any time,  and that requires a different response than simple aid.

Alok Sharma, UK negotiator and President of COP26 last year in Glasgow, put the failings of the Implementation Plan in unequivocal words: “Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary. Not in this text. Clear follow-through on the phase down of coal. Not in this text. A clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels.Not in this text. And the energy text, weakened, in the final minutes.”

“Friends, I said in Glasgow that the pulse of 1.5 degrees was weak. Unfortunately, it remains on life support, ” he added.

The outcomes of COP27 very much suggested  that commitment to stopping, or even slowing down the race  to calamity, is not yet within reach. The war in Ukraine has made countries slip back into courting oil and gas in various forms. And some countries never wanted to stop the use of fossil fuels anyway .

Yet, for all the weaknesses and “delicate balance” of the text, collaboration continues and initiatives at a local level – particularly in some major urban areas – are nonetheless  gathering pace.

Cities and local transport finally in the spotlight

Just a year ago, at COP26, transport was just about electric cars, and the ‘built environment track’ was reduced to low carbon standards for new buildings. Encouragingly, an awful lot has changed since then!

Firstly, the IPCC AR6 scientific reports had a chapter each on the need to improve cities as ‘systems’. These technical - and frankly hard to read reports-  have now been encapsulated  in the Summary for Urban Policymakers4. This has finally put the lens on cities. A Special Report on cities and climate change, part of the IPCC AR7 process, has now been commissioned.

Secondly, as crazy as it may seem, for the first time ministerial delegates -the official state-level participating  parties-  appeared in side events about cities and transport. For the first time too, ‘other stakeholders’ like cities, regions or transport groupings had direct recognition and legitimacy. This aknowledged that cities have been moving faster than states and that national pledges and programmes will not succeed without local stakeholders. This is a huge mindset shift: the UN, after all, is all about nations, and multi-level cooperation among nations is already difficult enough. But cities appear to cooperate better, as they focus at a more practical level.

Rumour has it that COP28 in Dubai next year will have a full day on cities and urban areas.

Will this mean more funding for cities? Maybe. At present cities are responsible for 50-70% of emissions, but they receive just 10% of climate change- related funding, according to UN Habitat.

International initiatives to look out for

Two sister initiatives were launched under the patronage of the COP Presidency on 17 November: SURGe5  (Sustainable Urban Resilience for the  Next Generation), in collaboration with UN Habitat, and LOTUS6 (Low Carbon Transport for Urban Sustainability). 

Their objective is to raise the stakes and accelerate local and urban climate action as key contributors to achieving the Paris Climate Goals as well as the Sustainable Development Goals. 

While intended to support the shortcomings of low and medium income countries, both initiatives are very relevant to all, and especially in the UK as we experience similar issues of funding gaps, poorly resourced local authorities and siloed thinking.

Key issues to be studied further include:

  • Acheiving multi-level governance: the disconnect between local and urban climate action and national and international pledges and programmes
  • Sourcing finance: Not enough climate finance reaching local authorities
  • Building local capacity: Local governments lacking technical and human resources to address climate issues
  • Accessing technology and innovation: Technological and process innovations not reaching all cities due to significant research and action gaps
  • Ensuring equity: Urban vulnerable groups disproportionately affected by climate change

The UK is one of the identified partners of LOTUS,  and is expected to contribute ideas and research to the transport community, through the Transforming Transportation Summit in March 2023 and the International Transport Forum Summit in May 2023.

Climate aware transport for the future of the planet

In just 12 months, the local transport themes have developed enormously. In Glasgow the official focus was on innovation, electric cars and new fuels. This year, it was all about systemic change:

  • Decarbonising transport starting from public transport-first land use planning, massive adoption of electric public transport and utility vehicle fleets, leveraging of data for optimisation of routes, embracing informal transport services (or micro and shared mobility) as key contributors. 
  • Appropriate finance mechanisms for collaboration with the public sector, including collective procurement of bus vehicles (already deployed in India and tested by C40 in Latin America7), standardised electric infrastructure or data handling.
  • Planning ahead for massive scale recycling of fossil fuel vehicles and international restrictions for the export of second-hand vehicles (for example those no longer allowed in main markets like the EU).
  • Locally based, but internationally supported, strategies to reinforce climate aware transport behaviours especially in current youth.
  • Significant investment in rail resilience, to increase the speed of return to normal services after extreme weather events (heat, flood or wind) and improve the provision of alternative routes. Making rail use 100% renewable energy.
  • Anticipating and preparing for weather events in airports, including ensuring runway stability and planning for different operational and staff shifts in extreme hot or cold days.
  • Future proofing roads from subsidence and more frequent damage, focusing on adaptation to a rapidly changing climate as a better investment than repairs.

While the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan may have disappointed many, the discussions and initiatives are progressing at pace. In the UK, some cities like London, Glasgow and Bristol are fully active in developing their own agenda: but these fast-developing global frameworks and the IPCC reports (AR6 and the forthcoming Special Report on Cities) provide a clearer strategic plan and the science to back up the actions. Hopefully, they will also lead to coordinated action and access to climate funding.

Just the week after COP27, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London – arguably one of the best resourced cities in the world – declared that without access to funding it will be impossible to deliver a zero emission bus service in the city. If that is true, what hope is there for cities like Southend-on-Sea or Leicester?

So, though the challenge remains, the opportunity – and the supporting  evidence and arguments - are certainly there,  as was to be seen at COP27.  These reports and initiatives I have referred must be a wake-up call. Emissions must peak for all of us by 2025 – just three years away. Readiness for climate emergency is already urgently needed. At a local level I see hope for real progress in the will to make required  investments in our own immediate future. Something that is perhaps not high enough on  many national Government agendas.

Martina Juvara is masterplanning director at consultancy URBAN Silence

  1 António Guterres (UN Secretary-General) at the Climate Implementation Summit of COP 27 | UN Web TV

  2 Sixth Assessment Report — IPCC

  3 Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan | UNFCCC

  4 Reports – SUP (supforclimate.com)

  5 COP27 - SURGe

  6 COP27 - Low Carbon Transport for Urban Sustainability (L?O?TUS)

  7 New $1 billion dollar commitment from investors to deliver zero-emission buses in Latin America - C40 Cities

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