Published on Sustainable Cities

d’Urban: Cities leading at COP17

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I learned this week that Durban got its name in 1835 from Sir Benjamin d’Urban, the first governor of the Cape Colony. His name seemed particularly apt as COP17’s urban-in-Durban yielded important contributions. During the first weekend at Durban City Hall, just next to the COP17 venue, 114 local governments signed the Durban Adaptation Charter, committing signatory cities to accelerate local adaptation efforts, including conducting risk assessments and more city-to-city cooperation. An impressive complement to last year’s Mexico City Pact that calls for similar efforts to measure and promote mitigation in participating cities. More than 200 cities have now signed on to the Mexico City Pact.

The following Monday at the COP venue, an important partnership was announced. All five multi-lateral development banks (MDBs) launched an unprecedented partnership committing all of the world’s development banks to particularly cooperate on cities and climate change efforts. The MDBs – that provide about $8.4 billion of basic services support to cities annually – will work toward common tools and metrics for GHG emissions and urban risk.

During COP17 itself, cities that were leading this effort shared their experiences: Rio de Janeiro presented their revised GHG emissions inventory, an important leadership contribution; Tokyo outlined the impressive first year operation of its first-ever city-based emissions trading system; Mexico City issued the first Annual Report of the Mexico City Pact; Mayor Parks Tau of Johannesburg chaired a well attended C40 event. By my count, in just seven days, there were at least 100 events highlighting the critical role for cities to lead the world’s mitigation efforts, and better prepare to adapt to changing climate.

The best meeting I attended while at COP was in Durban’s Council Chambers. There’s something special about a city’s council chambers. Durban’s Council Chambers seemed especially welcoming of debate and recognition. The Chamber hosted Nelson Mandela when he received the Africa Peace Award in 1995 and again the Freedom of the City in 1999. Mother Theresa too, has graced Durban’s City Hall.

Council meetings can be acrimonious, difficult, and at times monotonous marathons through the night(s). But they almost always reach an agreement. My meeting in the Council Chambers was a quiet affair on a new ecological trust to build better cities, with only some 30 passionate people. Very passionate. A healthy debate with a fellow speaker on the role of the World Bank ensued.

Across from us was the ever-so gracious Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi. She quietly admonished that too much blame is unhelpful. We looked for common ground and talked some more. Later a thoughtful Dr. R.K. Pachauri spoke eloquently on the role of culture in climate change negotiations and scientific certainty. And I again remembered why, at the end of the day, or maybe sometimes when the sun is just rising, there is no better place in the world than a city’s council chamber to work toward consensus, to be less strident on black or white, and realize that most big issues are actually a shade of grey viewed from many different perspectives.

Today many of the world’s really big problems will require the support of citizens and the leadership of their cities. COP17 and the urban events in Durban confirmed again that cities are already at work.



Dan Hoornweg

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

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