The UN Climate Summit: What's in it for Cities?
Cities contribute 70% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, despite accounting for only 2% of land use. The UN Climate Summit places cities high on the agenda for creating a sustainable, low-carbon future. Photo by ruimc77/Flickr.

Cities contribute 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, despite accounting for only 2% of land use. The UN Climate Summit places cities high on the agenda for creating a sustainable, low-carbon future. Photo by ruimc77/Flickr.

City leaders have a key role to play at next week’s UN Climate Summit in New York City, which brings together heads of state, mayors, business leaders, and civil society representatives to build momentum towards an international agenda to tackle climate change and build resilience.

The window of opportunity to make meaningful progress in the battle against climate change is shrinking. This is especially true in cities, which are set to gain 1.4 billion people in the next 20 years and develop trillions of dollars in new infrastructure. Since 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions originate in cities – and these same cities are expected to bear the brunt of climate change impact – any international climate agreement must address urbanization to address the full scope of the challenge.

The Climate Summit places cities high on an agenda packed with different ideas for reducing the world’s emissions. Specifically, municipal leaders will narrow in on three lines of action for low-carbon, sustainable cities: adaptation and resilience; greenhouse gas accounting; and closing the finance gap for sustainable urban development.

Urban adaptation and resilience

Cities are not only major contributors to global climate change, but also the battleground where the negative impacts of climate change will play out. An estimated 360 million urban residents worldwide live in areas prone to flooding, sea level rise, and storm surges, all of which are expected to increase with rising global temperatures. China alone has 78 million city dwellers in such at-risk areas, a number rising annually by 3%.

To protect citizens and economic assets, cities must plan to adapt over the long term. This means investing in climate-resilient infrastructure as well as curbing emissions. Investment is key, because the cost of adapting to climate change for the world’s cities is estimated at $70 billion to $100 billion per year. Cities in the developing world are especially vulnerable to climate impacts, and are expected to bear 80% of the global costs of adapting to these impacts.

At next week’s Summit, national governments, business leaders, NGOs, and mayors will explore the tools and policies necessary to achieve resilient cities.

How to measure and manage greenhouse gas emissions in cities

A growing number of countries and companies now measure and manage their emissions through greenhouse gas inventories. Not all cities, however, employ a common standard for tracking their own emissions. At next week’s Summit, we will see that change.

By signing on to the Compact of Mayors – a new agreement spearheaded by international city networks – leading mayors will commit to four steps toward a more transparent approach to climate action in cities:

  • Disclosing data about their emissions
  • Setting ambitious targets for reducing emissions
  • Developing strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change
  • Tracking and reporting their progress

In doing so, these cities will also commit for the first time to a standard method of measuring and reporting emissions at the city level. A global standard and partnership – like the Global Protocol for Community Scale Emissions – can increase the data accuracy necessary to spur climate action, establish an international benchmark for city-level emissions, and help cities build the case to finance low-carbon development.

Closing the finance gap

The innovative cities nominated for 2014’s City Climate Leadership Awards show the range of new ways for cities to become more sustainable. The challenge is making these ideas a worldwide reality.

Financing low-carbon, resilient projects is an important part of closing this gap, particularly in emerging economies, where growing populations mean city leaders must build infrastructure now that will last for decades. The need is great: the World Bank has estimated that closing the infrastructure gap in developing cities requires US$ 1 trillion per year. But official development aid (ODA) – an important financial flow to emerging economies – stands at only US$ 135 billion annually.

The City Climate Finance Leadership Alliance addresses this challenge by creating a network where city leaders and national and international financing bodies can exchange ideas and create a marketplace for low-carbon projects. The alliance’s action statement – expected to be endorsed by a number of leading international organizations, NGOs, and development finance institutions – sets the goal of closing the investment gap in sustainable cities within the next 15 years.

A key moment for city leadership

As Former New York City Mayor and UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change Michael Bloomberg said at the 2013 City Climate Leadership Awards, “When it comes to climate change, cities are where the most exciting progress is being made.”

Bloomberg’s statement reflects the unique role city leaders play in inherently global climate issues. While their authority is local, their decisions have far-reaching implications. The summit is a key moment for these leaders to promote the right decisions, for the future of their cities and the planet, kicking off two years of globally important climate negotiations in Lima and Paris, the formation of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and 2016’s HABITAT III conference on housing and sustainable urban development.

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