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OPINION: Why our cities must act as beacons for ambitious climate action

Friday, 25 October 2019 16:22 GMT

Archive Photo: People cross Duomo square, with its Gothic cathedral in the background, during a snowstorm in Milan December 21, 2009. REUTERS/Paolo Bona

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Cities are a critical player in effective climate action, and many are already making headway where others are falling behind

Will cities ultimately be viewed as the cause or solution to the global climate emergency? That seems to be the crossroads at which we now find ourselves, and it is a question which is either troubling or inspiring for city planners and mayors alike. 

Cities are huge contributors to climate change, responsible for about 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions and yet they are also at the frontline of the impacts of floods, extreme heat and drought.

Research by scientists at the Crowther Lab predicted that 77% of cities around the world will experience dramatic change in climate conditions over the next 30 years.

For us, the most effective response begins by helping cities embrace the essential role they play. Cities are a critical player in effective climate action, and many are already making headway where others are falling behind.

Spaces of ingenuity 

Cities around the world are proving to be great beacons of ingenuity and innovation when it comes to tackling climate challenges. Their intersecting systems, concentrations of progressive thinking – and the stark reality of the possible future we face in our urban areas – mean that cities can often move faster than other parts of society. 

City leaders and mayors are arguably becoming more important and impactful than national governments in their drive for meaningful climate action.

City mayors have been setting ambitious targets for phasing out all emissions and actively seeking out ways to reach decarbonisation more quickly than their state-level leaders. Just this week, Mayors in London and Birmingham, the UK’s two biggest cities, have urged the central government to devolve more responsibility for local environmental issues. 

Yet, the past 20 years have demonstrated that cities need more help to fully embrace the leading role they must play. While we have assembled a wide array of tools, resources and expertise, we have yet to provide cities with the kind of support to experiment, learn and take bolder steps to tackle this most serious of global issues. 

In Milan, EIT Climate-KIC and our partners are working on a city-wide experiment to demonstrate how a city can achieve climate resilience through a 10-year strategy based on innovation and learning. Milan has a portfolio of initiatives in the process of being implemented. However, these initiatives do not add up to the scale of action needed.

Together, we are building on these to create a new strategy, which includes figuring out how to plant 3 million trees across the city; using emerging technologies to combat urban heat island effects; and the launching of a €500 million fund for several climate projects, including the retrofit of 17,000 buildings to make them more sustainable. 

A new affordable housing development in Milan is also being built with waste reduction, carbon savings and renewable energy use at its heart. It has also used resident engagement to increase urban mobility and reduce car use. 

With such a short time in which to act on the climate crisis, mayors can no longer rely on traditional approaches. Long consultations, sector-by-sector planning, top down decision-making, long public procurement exercises and traditional financing models will not cut it.

Instead, city leaders are looking for something faster and potentially more transformative. 

Citizen engagement models, new forms of empowerment and decision-making, multiple types of action happening simultaneously – across policy, finance, regulation and technology – can lead to successful city-level transformation, where states have failed. 

This is why, for the first time, EIT Climate-KIC is calling for cities around the world to engage in climate action through the Climathon Global Awards.

These awards will recognise the leaders of climate innovation and ingenuity in cities. Winning cities will receive seed funding, fast track coaching and support from global experts in their fields, as well as an opportunity to connect and exchange with EIT Climate-KIC’s network of Healthy, Clean Cities Deep Demonstration. 

Taking a systemic approach, working across siloes and boundaries, involving people from the ground up and learning from unusual actors: these are just some of the ways in which we can support cities to rise to the scale of the challenge presented by climate change.

It is only by working together, as a movement, that cities can build on existing progress and create the conditions for transformation and climate resilience. 

 Tom Mitchell is the Chief Strategy Officer for EIT Climate-KIC

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