Climate money needs a faster route to cities, says COP29 advisor

The former head of a United Nations urban development office wants to speed up flow of global “loss and damage” funds to local councils. However, their staff also need to be properly trained on handling green projects.

Philippines flood
Flooding in Pampanga, Philippines in August 2023. Image: E911a/ Wikimedia Commons

A global fund to help vulnerable nations rebuild from climate disasters has received US$700 million in commitments from wealthy countries since its inception last year. There are calls to expand the wallet to over a trillion dollars to reflect the true cost of global warming.

But all these will mean little if cash-strapped provinces and municipalities cannot access the money while their residents suffer from extreme weather, according to Maimunah Mohd Sharif, a former mayor and United Nations executive now advising the presidency of the COP29 climate summit.

As such, the year-end meeting of global leaders must allow donors to the “loss and damage” fund – as it is known – to deal directly with local governments. In turn, district officials need to reciprocate by training up to better handle green projects, Maimunah told Eco-Business on the sidelines of the World Cities Summit in Singapore.

HE Maimunah

Maimunah Mohd Sharif is an advisor to the COP29 presidency. She was previously mayor of Penang Island in Malaysia, and executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. Image: Maimunah Mohd Sharif.

COP29 has been pitched by host Azerbaijan as a conference to unlock more climate finance for developing countries. Apart from finalising rules for the loss and damage fund, countries worldwide will need to hammer out a new deal to replace the existing US$100 billion-a-year package, which is already late in its delivery and expires next year.

Maimunah said investors shy away from dealing with subnational governments, as the latter often do not have the ability to handle project financing, even as these local authorities are most aware on what their residents need.

“When [financiers] want to invest, they see that you don’t even have an accounting system. You don’t even have a monitoring system. How can they invest in a city which is not properly managed?” said Maimunah, who was mayor of Malaysia’s Penang Island in 2017, and immediate past executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), having stepped down in January this year.

National governments also need to remove red tape blocking multilateral funders from engaging with local officials.

“Now we have so much bureaucracy when going through national governments…money remains unspent when people are suffering,” Maimunah said, without specifying countries.

The solution, she said, was to develop clearer funding procedures rather than leaving federal leaders out of the equation. Maimunah pointed to Penang state securing US$10 million in grants from the UN’s Adaptation Fund in 2022 for a five-year urban greening project, with endorsement from Malaysia’s national environment ministry.

Emerging market cities are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events such as heatwaves and storms, given their human and economic density, along with local governments’ limited budgets to develop climate defence mechanisms.

Cities also contribute to over two-thirds of global emissions. However, private investors have been more active in addressing this challenge, largely because solutions such as renewable power and electric vehicles generate viable returns on investment.

Maimunah has been calling for greater participation of local governments in the global COP conferences for years. In 2022, she pushed for what eventually became the first ministerial meeting on urbanisation and climate change at Egypt’s COP27.

Last year, UN-Habitat co-hosted a local climate action summit at COP28, where an estimated US$470 million was committed to urban climate projects.

Mayors usually do not have a seat at the negotiating table between heads of states at COP summits. But Maimunah thinks they can be heard if they can submit a joint resolution.

“Member states cannot ignore the voices of 6,000 cities…That is why I fought to have the local climate action summit. That is the only way that the voices of local governments can get onto the negotiating table,” she said.

Looking further ahead, national governments will need to submit a new round of climate pledges by COP30 next year. New goals should better capture the many city-level work plans that have been developed in recent years, Maimunah said. The last time UN-Habitat did a tally of such commitments in 2022, over a third of all countries did not reference urban challenges nor solutions.

Currently, world leaders are meeting in Bonn, Germany for half-time talks ahead of COP29 in November, to iron out as many technical issues as possible before the year-end annual event.

Negotiators are expected to discuss what transitioning away from fossil fuels – agreed on at COP28 – means exactly. Delegates will also review existing climate adaptation strategies and try to find common ground on carbon market mechanisms.

The Azerbaijan presidency will meet with advisors later in June to review the agenda and draft decision texts for COP29. Speaking at a closed-door session at the World Cities Summit on Sunday, Maimunah told a convening of global mayors to regard her as a bridge to the COP29 presidency, and promised to bring their calls to the table.


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