Published on Sustainable Cities

Cities and International Negotiations

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A few weeks ago I attended an IPCC1 Fifth Assessment Working Group expert review meeting for the upcoming Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) (WG III – Mitigation: the ‘first order draft’ is now being reviewed with the final report to be published in 2014). This meeting was a typical collection of about 100 climate researchers from around the world, this time, conveniently in Washington, DC. The overall Assessment Report process involves about 30 to 40 such meetings around the world per year. Part of their function is for the Assessment Reports to feed into the UNFCCC negotiation process.

Rio+20 MeetingDespite its challenges, complexities and occasional politicization, the IPCC is a wonderful idea. Credible researchers, no-matter where they live or work, are asked to contribute to a body of science larger than any one country, company or agency. Any city should feel proud to have an employee participating in an IPCC review.

At the meeting wrap-up, the very capable Chair asked me if I thought the AR5 urban chapter so far would be useful for cities. From an institutional or policy wonk perspective, or as a scientist, the report is extremely important. It brings together critical updates on greenhouse gas emission inventories, climate science and scenario modeling. UNFCCC negotiators need to know where the baseline is, and what needs to be accomplished, well before it’s decided who needs to do what and by when.

From a city’s perspective, however, these reports are often impenetrable and far too labored to be sufficiently timely and pragmatic for a city to integrate results into service delivery or resilience planning. Most cities know that climate change is happening at an accelerated pace and the progressive ones are already engaged in both mitigation and adaptation. A thick report might provide them a few assurances, but no city is waiting to act for delivery of yet another review.

Some cities and their associations, seeing the slow pace toward an international climate agreement, lobby for a more active international role. But if ever there was an example of ‘be careful of what you wish for’, cities hoping to attend UNFCCC events, quickly comes to mind. These negotiations, and similar ones, like those for Rio+20, are already so protracted and at times acrimonious, that adding participants is a bit like increasing the volume on your car radio to drown out the guy next to you.

What cities should do is make sure their country’s ‘A Team’ shows up for international negotiations and policy development and that they show up with credible evidence-based policy recommendations. Any country with three or more cities should have a very good ministry of urban affairs, or similar, at the national level. Chances are the lion’s share of the country’s economy is coming from cities, and most of the workers, voters and innovations are in cities, too. A good ministry of urban affairs could ensure that cities are contributing to the economy as much as possible while being provided a wholesome local and global environment and social security.

In most countries the Minister of Urban Affairs needs a much stronger voice at the national Cabinet Table. In many countries a strong argument can be made that this Minister should represent the country in international negotiations, like those under the UNFCCC, rather than the more common Minister of Environment.

Ministries of Environment are usually tasked with command and control operations, legislation to stop pollution, demarcation and protection of a park, and corporate monitoring. Ministers are often green, awaiting seasoning to be appointed as ministers of finance, defense or maybe state.  A Ministry of Urban Affairs should, however, be more aligned to the attributes of a well-functioning city – pragmatic, efficient, fair, cost effective, inclusive, incremental and pro-active.

These attributes are what cities can bring to the Cabinet Table and international negotiations. They are badly needed.

1Any discussion on international negotiations is chock-full of acronyms: IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change); UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change); AR5 (The Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC); WG III (Working Group 3 – of 3 groups – working on mitigation).

Photo source: UNISDR Photo Gallery


Dan Hoornweg

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

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