Combatting Climate Change Must Be A Local Fight

Experts argue the most significant responses to climate change are being deployed at the local level where policies can be and implemented more efficiently


By Mary Velan


Climate change is a global situation that impacts every nation on the planet. This may lead many to think that solutions to combat the impact of climate must be realized and implemented at the global - or at least the federal - levels. Many experts, however, argue the most significant responses to climate change are being deployed at the local level where new policies and initiatives can be tested and implemented faster and more efficiently.

Why Local Makes Sense

According to the Global Commission on Economy and Climate, climate-smart cities have the potential to spur economic growth and improve the quality of life for residents all while reducing carbon emissions. If cities worldwide adopted climate-smart policies and national governments supported them, about $17 trillion could be saved in wasteful energy practices and inefficiencies across the globe by 2050. In fact, if the world’s leading cities committed to low carbon development strategies by 2020, the equivalent of 3.7 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided by 2030. These figures suggest that fighting the effects of climate change not only increase sustainability but also save money and improve citizen happiness.

The report recommends cities not only develop low-carbon urban strategies but also commit to the Compact of Mayors pledge to:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Enhance resilience to climate change
  • Track progress transparently

Currently more than 130 cities have already committed to the Compact of Mayors strategy to set ambitious reduction targets and report the results publicly.

“Better, more resilient models of urban development are particularly critical for rapidly urbanizing cities in the developing world,” said Eduardo Paes, Mayor of Rio de Janeiro and Chair of C40 Cities. “Cities around the world are already leading the way in implementing sustainable and innovative urban solutions. By sharing and scaling-up these best practices through international collaboration, cities can save money and accelerate global climate action.”

“Developing country cities have a major opportunity to lead the low-carbon future”, said Parks Tau, Mayor of Johannesburg. “In Johannesburg, the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit and the highly competitive R1.5bn green bond both demonstrate a commitment to economic growth and investment rooted in resilient, sustainable urban development.”

Low-Carbon Strategies

Creative policy instruments and innovative financing can help cities overcome barriers to action, the report says. For every US$1 invested in improving the creditworthiness of cities, more than US$100 can be leveraged through private finance for low-carbon urban infrastructure. And every US$1 million invested in project preparation could yield US$20–50 million in capital support for successful projects.

The report offers numerous examples of cities that have achieved or can achieve economic benefits from green investments.

  • Bus Rapid Transit: The economic returns of Johannesburg’s Bus Rapid Transit system in its first phase were close to US$900 million.
  • Building efficiency: Singapore’s “Green Mark” program, for instance, which aims to cover 80% of its buildings by 2030, could see a reduction in building electricity use of 22% and net economic savings of over US$400 million.
  • Cycling: Copenhagen’s planned Cycle Super Highways are estimated to have an internal rate of return on investment of 19% per year.

Nick Godfrey, Head of Policy and Urban Development at the New Climate Economy and an author off the report, provided context for the report’s analysis. “US$17 trillion in savings is actually a very conservative estimate,” he said, “because it only looks at direct energy savings generated from investment, which are a small proportion of the wider social, economic, and environmental benefits of these investments.”

The report also recommends that the international community should develop an integrated package of US$1 billion or more over five years to help accelerate and scale up low-carbon urban strategies in at least the world’s largest 500 cities.

Necessity Inspires Innovation

Not only is it convenient for cities to develop low-carbon strategies to reduce carbon emissions, it is also a necessity they do so for long-term sustainability. Urban centers, which house well over half the world’s population, are responsible for an estimated 70 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Just as cities are a leading cause of the impacts of climate change, they are also the most negatively affected by them. Areas along rivers and coasts are more likely to experience water levels rising and extreme weather conditions that destroy homes, endanger lives and cripple economies. About 90 percent of cities are built along rivers and coastal plans, making them especially vulnerable to the byproducts of climate change.

In addition, cities have other powerful incentives driving leaders to take immediate action to curb emissions - such as public health. A Clean Air Task Force study from 2014 found in 2010 U.S. coal pollution was linked to 13,000 deaths annually. After adopting measures to reduce reliance on coal and investment in clean energy, that figure has dropped to 7,500 deaths annually.

Likewise, cities have an economic incentive to invest in low-carbon development as people want to live where the air and water is clean. Therefore, experts argue cities can attract talented workers and thriving businesses by fighting climate change with clean energy policies. New York City, for example, reported a 19 percent reduction in its carbon footprint in the years following the 2008 economic downturn while leading the nation in job growth, Bloomberg reported.