By Raymond Johansen, Governing Mayor of Oslo & Mark Watts, Executive Director C40 Cities
Small changes within cities can go along way in the race to a net-zero economy
Youth activists across the globe are striking to demand urgent, concrete, and ambitious action from world leaders in response to the climate crisis. On their list of immediate actions is a call for annual binding carbon budgets, in line with the science, to give us a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C. Oslo has used annual carbon budgets to cut emissions in the city since 2016. This model is being used in other cities seeking to do the same.
The past few months have seen a number of major new commitments by national governments to achieve carbon neutrality within the next few decades. These are certainly encouraging, but unfortunately, nowhere near enough to prevent runaway climate breakdown. We need to at least halve emissions in the next ten years if we are to have any chance of limiting global heating to the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement. Without these rapid cuts, we can expect to face food and water shortages, sea-level rise, and an increase in climate-related disasters. These consequences will not be shared equally, as poorer countries will be the most affected despite being the least responsible for global emissions.
As the Fridays for Future movement has stated, the climate crisis is here now, and we need concrete, immediate, action in line with the science, not distant goals. Among their demands is a call for people in charge to prioritise annual short-term carbon targets, factoring in justice and equity, to avoid the worst-case scenarios. Whether national governments heed this call remains to be seen, but cities, responsible for 70% of the world’s emissions, are well-placed to forge ahead with ambitious yearly carbon-budgeting.
Oslo was the first city worldwide to set an annual budget for greenhouse gas emissions. It has a target of reducing its emissions by 95% (from 2009 levels) by 2030, in line with the Paris Agreement. The climate budget is part of the municipal budget and the Department of Finance is responsible. Each year, the climate budget outlines which emission reduction measures are to be taken, and who is responsible for carrying them out. This system means that all city departments are pulling in the same direction throughout the year and that climate action is not the sole responsibility of the environment team. It means, for example, that the agencies which are responsible for all other aspects of waste management are also responsible for climate action in the waste sector.
In Oslo, climate measures are viewed not only as an urgent responsibility but as an opportunity to make the city a better place to live. Once busy streets are turning into spacious, traffic-free pedestrian areas with further investment in public transport and cycle lanes. Work is underway to restore fjords, rivers, parks and recreational areas. The transition to zero emissions must also build green jobs and reduce inequality.
The work enjoys high levels of public support, and several municipalities in Norway are now copying Oslo.
As Fridays for Future have said, our global carbon budget is fast running out, and we need action here and now to cut emissions. In Oslo, we have taken these actions because we cannot wait to reduce emissions, and this cannot be left for somewhere else, at another time, and by someone else. Our experience shows that cities can lead in setting ambitious annual targets to reduce emissions and make climate action a priority across all areas of government. Now the goal is to take that leadership and spread it all around the world.
This piece was originally published in Foresight magazine on 22 March 2021.