Cities chart the road from Paris in tackling climate change

An op-ed by Eduardo Paes, C40 Chair and Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, and Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles

The great Italian writer Italo Calvino once wrote “You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” Indeed, throughout human history, people have looked to cities for answers – to questions of economics, trade, public health, culture and education.

This week, as national leaders begin to consider how they will deliver on the deal agreed at the international climate negotiations in Paris, they should turn to cities once again for answers.

All of us who care for the future of our planet congratulate the negotiating teams who hammered out this deal in Paris, and are grateful for the leadership shown by political leaders from across the spectrum in setting an ambitious goal to limit the rise in global temperatures to "well below" the 2 degrees Celsius threshold. Yet the details of how the agreement will be implemented are still unclear and much work remains to be done before the agreement comes into force in 2020.

In stark contrast, for cities the road from COP21 is clear and defined – and action is already underway. A decade ago mayors were experiencing first-hand the often devastating consequences of rising seas, hotter days and more powerful storms on our densely populated centres of commerce and culture. While our national counterparts stalled, we acted. In 2005, representatives of the world’s megacities decided that the best way to pursue action on climate was to work together. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group was founded and since then has grown to more than 80 member cities from every region of the planet, representing more than half a billion people and a quarter of the global economy. That spirit of collaboration is having an incredible impact: recent C40 research shows that C40 cities have committed to reduce their CO2 emissions by 3 Gt CO2 by 2030, equivalent to the annual carbon output of India.

Nation states have finally set the world on a path toward a more sustainable future, yet the deal agreed in Paris will not come into effect until 2020. As mayors we know that we cannot afford to wait that long. Whether purchasing LED street-lighting in the short-term or developing more efficient mass-transit options or building green infrastructure in the long-term, cities are forging the road from Paris with clear-eyed precision.

Research published during COP21 by C40 and Arup identified 2,300 specific activities, programmes, procurements, and policies that cities can deliver by 2020 to save a massive 450 MtCO2, equivalent to the annual emissions of the United Kingdom and can be unlocked for just $6.8 billion. The same research also shows the most significant barriers to cities delivering on those actions – importantly, a shortage of funding or access to finance is the most frequently cited.

Because we are able to pinpoint these challenges we are able work around them. In a precedent-setting move that will finally put green infrastructure funding in reach for cities in low- and middle-income countries, C40 announced a new Cities Finance Facility to help cities prepare sustainable infrastructure projects to attract investment. The facility is set to unlock $1 billion of investments for fast-growing cities of developing countries within four years.

The commitment of local leaders to tackle climate change is now beyond doubt.  Even as the negotiations were underway, more than 700 mayors met in Paris City Hall, at the invitation of Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Michael R. Bloomberg, U.N. Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change. At that event, the Compact of Mayors – an international coalition of cities committed to addressing the challenges of climate change through identifying, measuring and tracking their emissions reductions – reached a milestone of 428 signatory cities.

The C40 Steering Committee meets during COP21 in Paris. Mayor Paes is third from left, Mayor Hidalgo is fourth from right, and Mayor Garcetti is far right.

Cities are emerging from COP21 with a renewed sense of purpose and even stronger dedication to the work we are already doing. We will not be standing still in the years ahead to 2020, and neither should national governments. Now it is up to nations to work with us to provide the tools – finance, political leadership, and collaboration at every level – needed to navigate our way on the road from Paris.

We know that if cities as diverse as Rio, Los Angeles and Paris can work together to tackle climate change and create a more sustainable planet for future generations, nations can too.

This op-ed originally appeared in La Tribune and Valor Econômico