OPINION: Cities are at the forefront of climate action. The world must follow

Wednesday, 1 June 2022 05:43 GMT

A woman rides an electric scooter wearing a protective mask, amid the continuous spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, along Standvagen in Stockholm, Sweden, November 20, 2020. TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg via REUTERS

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Fifty years since the 1972 conference, 'think globally, act locally' remains an essential blueprint to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution

Inger Andersen is the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP); Anna König Jerlmyr is the Mayor of Stockholm

In 1972, nations convened in Sweden for the very first United Nations conference on the human environment. It was a landmark in creating the environmental movement as we now know it.

The conference democratized environmental debate by opening the door to a host of actors beyond central governments. Fifty years since, “think globally, act locally” remains an essential blueprint to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution.

With about 55 per cent of the world’s population living in cities, and with two-thirds of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, acting locally means acting in cities.

Cities concentrate millions of people into dense areas, often highly vulnerable to air and noise pollution, floods, extreme heat, ecological degradation, and waste. They’re usually bereft of the benefits that nature and open spaces bring. But just as cities may bear the brunt of these social-environmental crises, local authorities are also at the forefront of delivering solutions.

In 2013, the late political theorist Benjamin Barber published “If Mayors Ruled the World,” in which he argues that mayors “get things done”. This goes beyond fixing potholes and streetlights, to encompass the extraordinary potential for cities to make progress on social issues, including the environment.

In the city of Stockholm, successive administrations have demonstrated what is possible. 

Already 100 per cent of the city’s public transportation runs on electricity or fossil-free fuel. Cycling is encouraged. The district heating network already uses waste heat generated from data centres, supermarkets, and stadiums. The city also champions the reduction of construction waste, as well as food waste. Its neighbourhoods are turning from grey to green.

Recently the city began to address the issue of ‘consumption-based emissions’ - considering the full life cycle carbon emissions of the products and services used.

There’s equal urgency for environmental action in rapidly growing cities in the Global South.

Nairobi, home to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) since the 1972 Stockholm Conference, protects large forests within its boundaries.

The wildlife of the Nairobi National Park can be seen from its international airport. A growing share of the city’s energy mix is renewable, with the entire country set to fully transition to clean energy by 2030. The city is also a bustling hub of innovation, including start-ups offering solutions to plastic pollution.

Plans have been drafted to make Nairobi’s green spaces equitable and welcoming to all economic classes, but they require investment. East Africa’s transition to electric vehicles is still at an early stage. Development finance and solidarity is needed to help make the necessary transition.

Indeed, most cities in the Global South face significant environmental challenges that exemplify the limits of acting on the local level alone. Green spaces have diminished in recent decades in many cities. Black carbon emitted by old vehicles is a major source of air pollution along many urban roads which are also where its poorest residents live.

That is where the potential of multilateralism shines.

Fifty years after the original Stockholm Conference, on 2-3 June, a UN high-level meeting will reconvene on the environment, co-hosted by Sweden and Kenya.

Stockholm+50 will be an opportunity to reflect on the progress made so far – from healing our protective atmospheric ozone layer, phasing out toxic substances, and saving certain species from extinction, to accelerating action to meet the cap to global warming and commencing talks on a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution.

Mayors need not rule the world, as Barber suggests, but it is the collaborative and solution-oriented spirit of cities that must prevail everywhere. On 1-2 June mayors, business leaders and experts from around the world are gathering in Stockholm, just before the main meeting, to lead the change with innovative ways in which cities can lead the charge towards sustainability.

Only together can we build the sustainable cities of tomorrow.

That is why the next decades require everyone to step-up: local authorities and national governments, civil society groups, scientists, businesses, indigenous peoples, banks,  insurance companies and other institutional investors.

If at Stockholm in 1972 the world raised the interlinked challenges of human development and the environment, it is there in 2022 where solutions must be advanced through collective action.