Cities get the call in Cancun

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If you closely read the 20-page draft decision on the Clean Development Mechanism prepared at COP16 in Cancun, you will see a tiny reference to the possibility of including ``city-wide programs’’.Those few words represent an enormous effort: mainly championed by Amman, Jordan, with support from the World Bank, the European Union, UN-HABITAT, C40 Cities, ICLEI, United Cities and Local Government(UCLG) and others.


There is reason to be excited. Cities are the every-day face of civilization, the rough and tumble, action oriented arm of government: The ones you call when you need to get things done. And in Cancun they got the call. Image


Making sense of the COP, the ‘Conference of the Parties’ (cities would call it a meeting, ‘fiesta’ if you added beer and a beach) is a full time job. Thousands of people jet across the planet arguing over commas and clauses while climate change waits for true political will. But that political will does not come from countries at a COP. No, first and foremost it needs to be understood, nurtured, and acted-upon in cities. Countries get their marching orders mainly from urban residents, not the other way round.


Unfortunately, it hasn’t been working that way. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was intended to be an innovative market-based approach to combine GHG mitigation with sustainable development objectives. Between March 2005 and October 2010, more than 2400 projects were registered with the CDM. But only 203 were in cities (80% of those associated with landfill gas). This makes no sense: activities in urban areas cause more than 75% of the world’s GHG emissions, and yet less than 10% of the CDM projects were in cities. So far the creativity, pragmatism and impact of cities have not been effectively called upon to mitigate GHG emissions. That is now changing.


Recognizing the limitations placed on cities under the CDM rules, many people worked for more than five years to bring about changes in the CDM, represented by just those words in the draft decision mentioned above, to help cities ‘get in the game’. The Cancun summary document was seeded with that potential.


Image‘City-wide programmes’ will enable cities to aggregate lots of smaller activities across the city and measure them against a standard baseline. These ‘programmes of activities’, added together, should yield impressive results; city-wide building codes, traffic management, ‘smart’ power meters, street lighting, are only some of the possibilities.


Just a couple weeks before COP16 in Cancun, Mexico City hosted cities and agencies working with them from around the world to discuss the details on how cities can better participate in climate change mitigation and adaptation. The ‘Mexico City Pact’ resulted; more than 125cities have already signed.


Similarly, half a planet away, the City of Tokyo recently established the world’s first city-based Emissions Trading System (ETS). Tokyo’s credibility, capacity, and potential to drive GHG reductions is another welcome addition. This initiative has the potential to grow quickly and be replicated broadly. Cities like Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai are already looking at the details.


City-wide carbon finance as proposed by Amman, will likely never generate more than a percent or two of a city’s total budget, nor will a local cap-and-trade system as proposed by Tokyo provide all of the sweeping mitigation efforts needed. But the leadership and innovation shown by theses cities gives hope to negotiators and policy-makers.


One of the great hopes of Cancun is that cities can now be more fully in the game. Cities will be there during the lead-up to COP17 in Durban, but mostly cities will see a continuation and intensification of discussions, debates, and flat-out brawls as they wrestle with day-to-day adaption in a changing climate. This while welcoming three million new residents every week, all in the midst of growing in an increasingly carbon constrained world. Cities are happy to have planted the seeds for a more innovative approach to deal with climate change, but they won’t have the luxury to stand around watching the results. They will be busy making it happen.   




Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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