Climate Week 2016: Cities Get It and It’s Time We Did, Too

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When you talk about taking a trip in the United States, or even the world, do you note what state you’re visiting or what city? Nine times out of 10, I’d venture it’s the latter.

Major metropolitan areas are their own attraction and they’ve become something akin to what was once called a city-state, with their centers of culture, art, history, and finance. They are also increasingly residential meccas for those seeking vibrancy in work and living, and they are at the nexus of our national debates over race, gender, social equity, and climate resilience.

This makes city-level government, with its jurisdiction over planning, transportation, education, resiliency, health, and well-being, of growing importance—even on a global scale.

We saw it at COP-21 in Paris at the end of last year and we’re seeing it in the follow up to the historic deal, which got a boost earlier this month when China and the United States announced they had formally joined the agreement in what was hailed as a key moment in the global effort against climate change.

At COP-21, cities were at center stage at the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, effectively carrying the “all politics is local” mantra into the realm of climate change for the first time.

I was there at the time, when more than 400 mayors put their commitments in writing, and I predicted a challenging road ahead requiring more money, innovative financing, and community buy-in to accomplish ambitious goals.

But, as was noted in announcing the NRDC City Energy Project’s new initiative to save energy in America’s biggest wasters—big city buildings—mayors are all about getting it done for the people of their communities, and that is just what is happening. (The CEP is a joint initiative of NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation.)

How do we know? Because cities are telling us.

UK-based CDP, formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project, reported in August that the number of cities internationally that are reporting on their climate efforts has risen 70 percent to 533 since COP21, with four in 10 cities measuring their emissions, compared to one in 10 in 2011.

The cities provide annual information on not only their emissions but their renewable energy targets, water supply risks and other environmental issues, representing some 620 million people, according to the report.

"When cities measure their climate footprint and seek a sustainable path to green growth powered by clean energy, they take us all further towards the global transition to low emissions and resilient development," Patricia Espinosa, new head of the U.N. climate change secretariat, told Reuters in responding to the report.

In addition, since Paris, thousands of cities in 119 countries have come together under one umbrella—the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, described as the largest global coalition of cities committed to climate leadership. The new group, announced in June, is co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change and a major force for cities at COP21; and European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic.

This progress is impressive, and I’m not even mentioning Habitat III,  a major global summit on the New Urban Agenda set in Quito, Ecuador Oct. 17-20.

But don’t get me wrong. Thousands of Americans die each year due to air pollution, with the poor, children and the elderly suffering most—and mostly in cities, where more than 80 percent of us live. Negative climate effects strain our economy, put lives at risk, and should be worrying all of us—a lot. As a society, we’re beginning to understand the devastating social cost of carbon, and it’s about time we do.

But it’s clear many cities now get that they have everything to gain by tackling climate change. That’s evident in the amazing array of activities on tap this week for Climate Week NYC, highlighting New York as one of the most progressive cities in the world on climate change.

Other cities, too, are being elevated as examples. As my colleague Deron Lovaas recently noted, the Sierra Club published a new report profiling 10 U.S. cities that are shifting to 100 percent clean energy. In June, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the U.S. Conference of Mayors launched a new Alliance for a Sustainable Future, which will build better partnerships between states and cities and promote best practices in urban areas. And, at Urban Solutions—my program at NRDC—we just helped launch with other partners the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) to encourage community members, local activists, policymakers, and investors to come together in powerful new ways to address climate change.

Cities, as they have always been, are the innovators and problem-solvers. Heck, now mayors are even going to school for it. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to fix the sewer, cut the ceremonial ribbons—and clean up the planet.

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