The need to set aggressive goals, backed by meaningful numbers, is an obvious starting point in the fight against climate change. It’s common knowledge that if global warming exceeds 1.5C, we face the prospect of everything from increasingly extreme weather conditions to irreparable damage to our ecosystems.
Which is why a growing number of cities from around the world have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, with some bold enough to become net zero carbon cities by 2030 and a handful seeking to reach that goal before the end of this decade.
In the spirit of quantifying the progress cities are making on the path of becoming more sustainable, a poll of participating cities was conducted at the 2021 Daring Cities forum, a free virtual event geared for local decision-makers co-sponsored by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and the Federal City of Bonn, Germany. The poll aimed to get a sense of just how much progress cities feel their local governments have made thus far, and how they feel their efforts compare to other cities.
During October 7’s Daring Local Leadership for Ambitious Climate Action session, Wolfgang Teubner, Regional Director at the ICLEI European Secretariat, revealed that 60% of cities rated themselves on the same level as other cities in their countries, while about 25% rated themselves more ambitious compared to other cities in their respective region or country, and 15% rated themselves more ambitious than most cities around the world.
Teubner used those numbers to set the stage for the presenters to follow, which he described as “definitely amongst the [top 25] if not even the 15% of cities… who are taking ambitious local action” – local governments which have not only set lofty goals, but are carrying through with timely, impactful plans in support of transformative action.
Peter Kurz, Mayor of Mannheim, Germany, and Chair of the Global Parliament of Mayors, spoke about how his city has become the pilot city for The European Green Deal with the goal of making Europe the world’s first climate neutral continent, which he says is consistent with the fact that Mannheim “consistently follows the path from mission to action.”
As a pilot city and as a way to align itself with the continent-wide initiative, Mannheim established The Local Green Mannheim Deal, which as Kurz explained, covers the “eight thematic fields of…climate action, zero pollution, circular economy, biodiversity, mobility, food, clean energy and buildings,” and the city has taken the further step of cultivating broad-based support for these goals. “Deals have been concluded together with citizens, politicians, administration, companies, researchers and civil society,” he observed, adding that “every deal we make brings us one step closer to our goal of sustainability and climate neutrality.”
In transitioning from goal setting to putting plans into action, Mannheim – a city that historically has relied heavily on coal-fired power plants – has done a major push to transition to cleaner energy sources, including using district heating to provide power for over 60% of the city’s inhabitants, along with other initiatives tied to geothermal and biomass sources.
Glasgow Mayor Susan Aitken, who drew attention to the fact that COP26 is now just around the corner, spoke about her own city’s blueprint – or rather, “greenprint” from their perspective – with the Greenprint for Investment initiative. The goal of this initiative is to attract £30 billion worth of private sector investment. “The Greenprint connects our overlapping priorities of reducing emissions, adapting to and mitigating climate change, modernizing our city systems and addressing social challenges from fuel poverty to pure transport all while stimulating our economy for recovery,” she said.
The two biggest projects will be building a Glasgow metro system intended to support the transition to sustainable transport, and retrofitting homes across the region to upgrade insulation and utilize clean energy. The retrofit will take an estimated 10 years and cost around £10 billion. There are also plans to use the River Clyde to provide clean heat for the city center using renewable energy, and the creation of a District Heating Network.
Yet another ambitious goal is to plant 18 million trees in the city, equivalent to 10 trees for every resident over the next decade, as part of what has been branded the Clyde Climate Forest. As a post-industrial city which Aitken described as “scarred by its past,” she said that the goal of increasing tree cover to 20% through this program is tied to significant social equity objectives as well.
“Our goal is to increase tree cover in some of our more socially challenged and peripheral communities on former industrial sites, also in city streets, parks and squares and in our neighboring countryside,” she said. “The Clyde Climate forest will be key to tackling the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss with benefits that will last for generations.”
In her closing remarks, Aitkin observed that while the Climate Forest project is “hugely ambitious, our response to both the climate and ecological emergencies have to be ambitious and deliverable” as well.
Not unlike the leadership roles taken on by Mannheim and Glasgow with respect to the European Green Deal and COP26 respectively, the Mayor of Taoyuan City in Taiwan, Cheng Wen-Tsan, took time during the session to talk about his city’s role as chair of ICLEI’s EcoLogistics Community through to the end of 2022. Toayuan is serving as a test bed for sustainable and smart ecologistics solutions that promise to help dramatically reduce carbon emissions, noise pollution and congestion associated with the transportation and logistics industry, paving the way for other cities from around the world to follow suit.
“As chair of the Ecologistics Community, we will be adopting principles to make urban freight in our city sustainable,” says Wen-Tsan. Toward that end, they have established five Ecologistics demonstration projects and built local public-private partnerships locally, including one in the Daxi Business District that focuses on last-mile solutions. These solutions include shared warehousing, enhanced traffic management, the use of low carbon vehicles and smart self-pick up.
Wen-Tsan said that stakeholder engagement and cooperation have been a critical part of building public awareness and buy-in for implementing these sustainability initiatives. They hope these initiatives will inspire other cities to join the Ecologistics Community in order to share knowledge and best practices around urban freight.
Other noteworthy initiatives highlighted during the conference included efforts by the Quelimane Municipality in Mozambique to restore their mangrove forests, which Mayor Manuel de Araújo described as the city’s “first line of defense against flooding and erosion,” and efforts by the City of Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, to dramatically reduce the volume of waste going into their landfill sites.
Speaking from the municipality’s waste center, Anna Reynolds, Lord Mayor of Hobart, said that currently “what can’t be used goes into the ground as landfill,” not unlike “thousands of cities in Australia and around the world.” Not content with the status quo, Reynolds said that Hobart embraced the goal of zero waste in its landfill site by 2030 as part of its waste management strategy.
Organic waste is a major source of methane gas, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere and accounts for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’ve already halved our landfill emissions through harvesting methane to generate electricity and we are now working on initiatives to reduce the top four contributors to landfill…food, plastics, textiles and construction waste,” Reynolds said. Initiatives she cited include an organics collection program that converts waste into nutrient-rich compost, a ban on single use plastic packaging for takeaway food and promoting the use of compostable containers.
Reynolds summed up the overarching theme of her session when she opined that “our targets are one thing and implementation is another,” with the need for “local councils to get things done.” She went on to say that “our future depends on making unprecedented changes to how our cities operate and what each of us can do…reversing global warming won’t be easy, but we know that many climate solutions will make our cities better.”
Offering advice for other cities feeling the effects of climate change at the local level, Reynolds said, “Instead of despair, we need hope. Instead of fear we need courage. Instead of powerlessness we need action. Action is the antidote to your climate worries. Action is what cities are able to deliver when it comes to climate change.”
And in a final word of encouragement, Reynolds ended her talk with a challenge: “It’s not game over. It’s game on.”
Mark Wessel is an urban journalist and public speaker who profiles unique city initiatives tied to sustainability, resiliency and quality of living that other communities can learn from. His work has appeared in Child in the City, TheCityFix, Next City, Municipal World, Cities Today and the Urban Future ‘City Changers’ blog. He also writes a regular Green Living column for Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain.