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Clara Brandi: The Role of Cities in Global Deals and International Affairs

Clara Brandi of the German Development Institute explains why cities need a seat at the table of international affairs. Photo by Adam Cohn/Flickr

Clara Brandi is a Senior Researcher at the German Development Institute (DIE), specializing in economics and political science. With experience working with the World Health Organization and DIE, Brandi has conducted research and published on international trade deals, global governance and the 2030 Agenda. TheCityFix sat down with Brandi for an exclusive interview to explore the role of cities at COP21 and in international affairs.


With COP21 kicking off at the end of this month, what are you most looking forward to and what do you see as a successful result?

Clara Brandi  I’m hoping to see a global climate agreement come out of the negotiations in Paris. That in itself will be a success, but whether we can call COP21 a true success story or not depends on what’s in the agreement. When you look at all the INDCs that are on the table now—all the promises from the countries—we have come quite a way. We used to be heading for a 4 degree world, and now, if these promises are fulfilled, we are heading towards a 2.7 degree world, which is much better, even though we have to continue working to keep global warming below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

Whether we can call COP21 a success or not depends crucially on the monitoring and reviewing mechanisms that will be agreed upon. We need a strong MRV mechanism to give the promises and plans in the INDCs some teeth.

And onto cities, I think COP21 will also show that while there is some progress at the level of negotiations among states, there’s also a lot of very promising bottom-up activities. We should focus on catalyzing climate actions from non-state and sub-national actors, and cities are an important part of that.

According to the UN, “Cities are the main creators of economic wealth, generating over 70 percent of the world’s GDP.” Are cities recognized in the international climate and development communities as drivers of change?

CB – I think so far cities have not been adequately recognized as drivers of change, but I think this is changing. This change is really important because cities can help to solve many of the global problems that we are facing. For example, cities are already responsible for about 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cities are decisive contributors and simultaneous victims of global changes. But cities are also potential problem solvers that possess special transformative and innovative potential.

Of course, cities are the center of economic activity in many cases, but in cities all across the world I think we see that we are not only facing problems of urban poverty, but also socioeconomic disparities and inequality. And that’s also true for many cities in the northern hemisphere. I think we have to address these issues in order to make sure that all people can benefit from urbanization processes.

Global trade deals are a hot topic in the global media right now – are cities being considered in these discussions?

CB – No they are not. Cities are not being considered during the negotiations for bilateral or mega-regional trade deals. This underlines how, while cities are becoming increasingly important as players in the global arena, they are not recognized as actors in many of the international negotiation forums. This is true for the formal UN climate negotiations, but it’s also true for the trade negotiations. I think it’s worth having a debate about what kind of role cities should have in international politics in the future.

One of the biggest challenges for cities is figuring out financing for projects like mass transit and retrofits to building efficiency. What is a promising solution for financing sustainable urban development?

CB – Financing sustainable urban development and infrastructure is difficult because it requires long-term financing which is not easy to get. I think a promising way forward would be to combine this need for long-term infrastructure investments, say in Indian cities, with a priority on green financing. We should try to make all of the investment needs we have in the context of urbanization as “green” as possible. Finally, we should recognize that public finance will not be enough—we also have to think about how we can mobilize private finance.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are high-level goals set by countries. What is the role of cities in achieving the SDGs?

CB – I think it’s a great success that there is a goal for cities, SDG 11, which ultimately made it into the Agenda 2030. It will also be important to make sure that these global goals are being taken seriously both at the national and local level. SDG 11 is a good start and will create some new momentum for tackling the challenges that we are facing with regard to cities and urbanization. Going forward, it will be important to make sure that we become better at collecting the data that we need in order to assess our needs and to track implementation of SDG 11 and that we empower cities to contribute to achieving this goal and the other SDGs of the Agenda 2030.

What urban issue do we still not know a lot about and that you are interested in exploring further?

CB – I think one of the challenges that we should focus on more is how cities are growing and expanding; many new cities that are being built are in emerging economies, especially in China and India. The way these cities are planned and built, and how people-oriented they are, will have an influence on the lives of millions of people, and will also have important global effects. It will determine, for example, the carbon budget that we have for the next few decades. It’s critical to discuss how we can shape urbanization, in China and other places with high urbanization rates, to make sure that the new cities are being built in a sustainable way, and that we don’t create path dependencies like lock-ins. Cities will decide whether the transformation towards sustainability—and therefore the preservation of humanity’s natural livelihood—will succeed.

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