"Cities are where the greatest climate change challenges and opportunities lie, and where mayors are pioneering initiatives
Efforts by national governments to tackle climate change and other sustainability challenges have been mixed at best over the past 20 years, but there is one level of government that has embraced the challenge with gusto – and success.
"National governments have largely failed to act, while cities embody the spirit of innovation we need. When it comes to climate change, cities are where the most exciting progress is being made," said Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, speaking by videolink to the City Climate Leadership Awards in London this month. He added pointedly that, "mayors do not have the luxury of just talking about problems. They have to deliver results."
Partly, this is a matter of necessity – more than half the world's people live in cities, they consume two-thirds of the world's energy and generate 70% of carbon emissions. "If we want to win the war against climate change, it has to be won in cities," said Roland Busch, head of Cities and Infrastructure at Siemens, sponsors of the awards.
Many of the world's megacities are situated on the coast and their vulnerability to sea level rise and the effects of extreme weather events has been highlighted in recent years by disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, which devastated New York last year and Hurricane Katrina, which had a similar effect on New Orleans. But it's not just rising seas – each city has its own challenges, from the wildfires that threatened Melbourne in 2009 to the floods that deluged Bangkok in 2011, severely disrupting the entire Thai economy, to the choking smog that afflicts Beijing, New Delhi and Los Angeles.
But equally, the world's urban areas are where the opportunities lie – they generate more than 70% of global GDP and cities are growing faster than other parts of the economy. "If you want to provide infrastructure for people in the most cost-efficient and effective way, you do it in cities," said Busch.
Perhaps the fact that people in urban environments are "squished together" makes them more accepting of the need to take action, said Matthew Pencharz, an adviser on energy and environment to London's mayor Boris Johnson. While national politicians' pronouncements can sometimes seem too vague for people to get to grips with, "mayors have found a way to take action that is accountable to the population and brings them visible, tangible benefits that improve their quality of life."
Mayors have a lot of the right power, argues Rohit Aggarwala, special adviser to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and former director of planning and sustainability in New York. "The politics align well and, in addition, many of the interest groups that are most opposed to climate action are simply not as prominent in cities."
The consultants McKinsey argue in a new report entitled How to make a city great, "that leaders who make important strides in improving their cities do three things really well: They achieve smart growth. They do more with less. And they win support for change."
These improvements do not need to cost a lot of money if they are imaginative enough – McKinsey reports that the former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, "famously hired 420 mimes to make fun of traffic violators: this entertaining public ridicule reduced traffic fatalities by more than 50%."
Robert Doyle, Lord Mayor of Melbourne, explained how his city has a plan to double the number of trees in the city by planting an extra 30,000 saplings, which he said would cut temperatures in the centre by 4°C, as well as making the city more liveable and sustainable.
Other initiatives are more complex and all-encompassing – Tokyo won the finance and economic development prize at the awards for introducing the world's first city-based carbon trading programme, which since its introduction in 2010 has cut the Japanese capital's emissions by 7m tonnes by focusing on emissions from buildings.
Meanwhile, Singapore's Intelligent Transport System, which incorporates a range of smart transportation technologies and allow the city state to enjoy one of the lowest congestion rates of a city its size anywhere in the world, was awarded the Intelligent Infrastructure Prize.
The old days, when the various aspects of city life were tackled separately, are gone, according to Busch. "A city is like a human organism – everything has to work together. A comprehensive view of infrastructure, disregarding silos, is the key to the future development of cities."
And while every city is different, they can learn a lot from each other about what works best – and they are prepared to do so, in a way that national governments do not seem to be. That is why Boris Johnson, opening the awards, said that whoever won the awards, "you can be sure that we in London will shamelessly nick your ideas".
One of the lessons cities have learned is the importance of measuring their impacts. "If you know where to start, then you know where to go," said Busch. One example of this is the decidedly chilly city of Oslo in Norway, which discovered that along with heating in the winter, cooling buildings in summer was a significant source of emissions. "We were surprised," said mayor Stian Berger Røsland, "but it enabled us to look at using seawater for both heating and cooling."
By refusing to wait for action from national governments and international bodies, cities are leading the way in addressing the risks posed by climate change, said Bloomberg. "Using innovative local approaches, cities are having an impact on climate change globally.""