By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

Aerial view of Copenhagen skyline and Amagertorv town square with fountain, Denmark - stock photo
© Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

This year’s Emissions Gap report from the United Nations Environment Programme finds that, one year on from COP26, there is still ‘no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place’ among world governments and only an ‘urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster.’ On the basis of current commitments, global temperatures are estimated to reach around 2.6°C by the end of this century. Evidence from the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, an independent group of climate experts, shows that even the present 1.35°C of heating is already highly dangerous.

This failure of leadership contrasts with the achievements of C40 cities. To date, 62 C40 cities have an inclusive and resilient climate action plan aligned with limiting global heating 1.5°C and, more importantly, have followed up these commitments with tangible action. Over the last ten years, the number of High Impact Actions that are being implemented in cities, such as Low Emission Zones and net-zero new building policies, have tripled, and cities have made significant gains reducing emissions compared with a business-as-usual scenario. However, while cities are progressing at a faster rate than other stakeholders in the climate space, it’s not enough – recent analysis found that C40 cities are slightly off-target to halve collective emissions by 2030 – about 9% behind where we need to be in order to remain on track for 1.5°C.

This means that, to get back on track, cities need to scale up action even more quickly. There are currently 18 C40 cities that have procured zero emission buses. By 2024, there needs to be at least 39 cities following Los Angeles, Bogotá and most of C40’s Chinese city network in doing so. Similarly, 13 cities are currently introducing zero-carbon building regulations, which must increase to 26 cities within two years. Johannesburg’s first-in-Africa Green Building Policy could be replicated in a variety of urban contexts and go a long way towards helping meet a 1.5°C target.

Overall, delivery of High Impact Actions like these need to triple again in the next eight years to meet a 1.5°C target.

Moreover, in order to see rapid, systemic transformation we need today’s innovative practices to become mainstream, such as climate budgeting, which was first introduced in Oslo in 2017. This whole-of-government approach means the city’s annual financial budget can only be passed if it will deliver the city’s annual carbon reduction target, integrating climate considerations into decision-making across all city departments. A total of 12 cities are currently part of the C40 climate budgeting programme, including Rio de Janeiro, Tshwane and London, but if climate action is truly to become a whole of government approach, climate budgeting will need to become standard in every city in the near future.

Another priority for cities and city leaders is to acknowledge that cities designed around a 20th century, car-centric model are no longer fit for purpose. We urgently need to see a shift towards a ‘15-minute city,’ composed of multiple ‘complete’ and people-centred neighbourhoods, where everyone can meet their everyday needs within a short walk or bike ride from their home. The concept was first developed in Paris, but the experience of COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdowns and remote working has further highlighted the importance of the local environment and proximity to services, both of which are central to the 15-minute city concept. Cities need to seize this moment to accelerate the shift towards neighbourhood-level action, reducing emissions from transport and the built environment, and improving people’s quality of life in the process.

It is remarkable what cities are achieving, particularly given the multiple challenges of recent years. Cities are able to move quickly due to their capacity to work with one another, whether through technical collaboration, such as Beijing and Copenhagen swapping expertise to slash fuel consumption in district heating, or Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur collaborating to decarbonise the building sector. Now we have to step up the level of collaboration to be truly on track to halve emissions by 2030, in line with a 1.5°C trajectory. We know we can do it – the 5% reduction in air pollution achieved across C40 cities last year is similar to the kind of greenhouse gas emissions reduction that is needed each year until 2030. Globally, if we are to avoid catastrophic global heating, then the kind of collaboration that is happening across C40, at a time of growing geo-political division, needs to become the norm.

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