Cities’ Contribution to Climate Change

“We are increasingly interconnected—no city can wall itself off from the consequences of climate change, and no city can prevent catastrophic climate change on its own.”


Former Mayor of London (2007) 

Reasons for Addressing Climate Change at the City Level

Cities are an organic form of government and often express the aspirations of their citizens more succinctly and quicker than higher levels of government. When these rising voices are credibly articulated, their global impact is considerable, and growing, as the worldwide response to climate change illustrates. In the United

States, for example, 1,017 cities have signed on to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (US Conference of Mayors 2008).

Cities are first-responders in a crisis; they are the first to experience trends. For example, many local governments were aware of the 2008 financial crisis six months before national governments provided warnings as waste generation rates and values for recyclables had dropped significantly. Moreover, cities are usually the key agency to implement national government directives. Because of their proximity to the public and their focus on providing day-to-day services, cities tend to be more pragmatic than senior levels of government. National governments may set the rules of the game, but it is cities that are the athletes. For the athletes to play the game, not only is it crucial that they know the rules, but also that their voices and those they represent are incorporated during the formulation of the rules.

Climate change will require city administrations to develop more robust partnerships with their constituencies, especially in developing countries. The public needs to be an integral part of future responses to climate change and trust needs to be strengthened before specific actions are introduced. One way to achieve this is to regularly supply the public with credible standardized information that encourages active debate but also outlines the need for scheduled concrete actions. Climate change will probably still require cities to lead initiatives that do not always have wide-spread public support, despite well intentioned efforts to better include the public in municipal management. For example, the city of Bogota’s initial plans to reduce car use were widely rejected even though they are now broadly supported, as were Curitiba’s initial pedestrian zone and bus rapid transit system. 

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