Even as nations gathered in New York this week to discuss global-level action on climate change, there was strong recognition that cities, not countries, have so far played the pivotal role in the world's fight against climate change—and will continue to do so in the decades to come.
Urban centers house 54 percent of the world's population and account for approximately 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But they are also where most of the most innovative emission reduction strategies and adaptation measures are being implemented. These programs, as well as the question what needs to be done to further this work, were the topic of events throughout Climate Week New York City, from the United Nations to hotel conference rooms to the Empire State Building.
"We need to drive the global economy toward zero carbon by the second half of the 21st century," said Rachel Kyte, Vice President of the World Bank. "And we don't get there without cities acting differently."
Cities' leadership on climate change makes sense in many ways, dozens of political leaders, private sector companies, environmentalists and financial experts said throughout the week. Municipal leaders can often be more nimble than their national counterparts in launching climate initiatives. Cities also already have a long history of the private-public sector collaborations needed to fund innovative solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate impacts.
This has been especially true in the United States. With no Congress-approved, national climate change strategy, cities across the country, including New York City, have taken action on global warming on their own.
Scattered within the city-related discussions at Climate Week were at least five significant announcements:
At the Global Clinton Initiative annual meeting on Monday, the Rockefeller Foundation announced the second phase of its 100 Resilient Cities initiative, giving another 30-some communities (the finalists' names have not yet been announced) the funding and expertise needed to create and implement climate action plans.
Mayors from Philadelphia, Houston and Los Angeles announced the formation of the Mayors' National Climate Change Action Agenda at the same CGI event. The three cities—and others to join in the coming months—will commit to developing climate action plans and cut greenhouse gases.
In the midst of UN negotiations on Tuesday, a global Compact of Mayors was announced, a commitment by 2,000 cities to cut carbon emissions by 454 megatons by 2020. Also on Tuesday, an alliance of public and private sector partners, such as the World Bank and Bank of America, launched a program to stimulate sustainability, clean energy and climate resilience investments for cities.
The next day, on the 32nd floor of the Empire State Building, leaders from the World Bank, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group, 350.org and the Marshall Islands gathered to talk about cities' role in the climate fight and how to ramp up sustainable development and innovative climate-friendly design.
Part of the event included the launch of the Track 0 project, aimed at helping buildings and communities go carbon neutral by 2050. Carbon neutrality refers to the idea of producing emissions equal to what can be sequestered naturally.
"We have to get back to having a balanced world," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCC, said at the Empire State Building event. "That's where we've F'ed up."