Why cities are vital to the success of the Paris Agreement

Cities play a unique and crucial role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Making public transport more attractive and accessible, and sharing expertise among cities are two key ways to making urban areas more sustainable and liveable, say city leaders and experts.

c40 NCCS event
City leaders at the C40 and NCCS seminar on the role of cities in fulfilling the Paris Agreement. L-R: Milag Ballesteros, C40 Regional Director for Southeast Asia and Oceania (Moderator); Len Brown, Mayor of Auckland, New Zealand; Tang Tuck Weng, Senior Director, National Climate Change Secretariat, Singapore; Herbert M. Bautista, Mayor of Quezon City, Philippines. Image: C40.

As cities all over the world compete to attract global talent and investments, their journey to becoming sustainable and liveable must begin with tackling transport challenges, said global city leaders on the sidelines of World Cities Summit earlier this month in Singapore.

City mayors and other policymakers at a discussion on the role of cities in achieving the Paris Agreement added that as urban areas account for about 70 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, it is important for cities to take the lead on low-carbon growth if the world is to achieve its ambitious climate targets.

The deal, signed last December in the French capital, is the first time global governments agreed to targets such as achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of the century, and cap global temperature rise at two degrees Celsius above 1990 levels.

Speaking at the discussion, organised by Singapore’s National Climate Change Secretariat and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Auckland Mayor Len Brown shared that transport is a top priority for the city as it tries to reduce its emissions.

The largest city in New Zealand joined C40—a global network of cities committed to tackling climate change—last year. It plans to cut its emissions by 40 per cent by 2040 compared to 1990 levels, in a bid to support the New Zealand government’s goal to cut national emissions by half by 2050 from 1990 levels. 

Tackling transport as a way to reduce emissions

About 35 per cent of Auckland’s emissions are from road transport, especially private cars. “If we can shift our people out of cars onto public transport, bicycles and walking, we will achieve our target,” he added.

About five decades ago, Auckland’s planners modelled the city after Los Angeles in the United States, where widespread suburban sprawl makes cars the only viable transport option for residents, Brown explained.

But now, “instead of building cities around cars, we are starting to address transport”, the mayor said. 

To do this, the city in its 2015 budget pledged to spend NZ$523 million over the next three years on expanding and upgrading rail infrastructure, increasing bus frequency, constructing more than 50km of new cycling paths, and building new footpaths, among other things. 

Not only will this strategy help Auckland reduce its emissions, it also holds the key to achieving its goal of being the most liveable city in the world, noted Brown. Currently, Auckland is third on consulting firm Mercer’s index of the best cities to live in, after Vienna in Austria and Zurich, Switzerland.

Some issues associated with quality of life in a city—such as housing affordability—affect some individuals who do not yet own their own homes, but traffic congestion is a universal problem, said Brown. “A city’s efficiency and attractiveness is determined by how well you move people around,” he added.  

Singapore, too, has invested heavily in low-carbon transport solutions. For instance, it plans to expand its rail network to 280km by 2020, up from 40km today; and under its National Cycling Plan, aims to have 700km of cycling paths, triple the current length.

It has also recently announced a trial to allow foldable bicycles and personal mobility devices like electric scooters on buses and trains all-day, to encourage more to use these transport options.

Other measures highlighted in Singapore’s recently-launched Climate Action Plan include investing in research to develop electric and driverless vehicles, which can be used to supplement existing public transport infrastructure. 

One Singapore policy to discourage car usage that Auckland wants to emulate is its Electronic Road Pricing, or ERP, shared Brown. Under this scheme, car owners must pay a toll when driving in the country’s central business district as well as on some of the more commonly-used expressways and main roads.

To gauge its citizen response to such a scheme, Brown said that Auckland is planning a referendum on motorway tolls, although this has not yet been formally announced. However, according to a recent council poll, 57 per cent of Aucklanders supported congestion charging if it helped solve the city’s congestion problems, said Brown.

Citizen participation is key

Referendums are just one of the many ways Auckland’s leaders engage citizens to decide on the city’s future, noted Brown. Town hall meetings, public consultations and even canvassing for opinions on the streets are frequently-employed strategies.

Morten Kabell, mayor for Technical and Environmental Affairs at the City of Copenhagen agreed, saying that simply consulting citizens and businesses on future policies sends the wrong message. Often, this only involves discussions on how to reduce the impact of a policy or convincing people to agree to a decision that has already been made, he noted. 

“This approach suggests that we, as the city government, always know best and are simply convincing the rest to run with us,” he said. “In fact, what we are looking for is cooperation in its truest form.” 

If we can shift our people out of cars onto public transport, bicycles and walking, we will achieve our target.

Len Brown, mayor of Auckland

Copenhagen has therefore incorporated the idea of ‘co-creation’ into its development vision, which entails working with residents and companies to design solutions to the city’s challenges, said Kabell.

One example of this is the Copenhagen Street Lab, a joint effort between the city and companies such as information services provider Cisco, city lighting firm Citelum, and Denmark’s largest communications company, TDC. 

These organisations will jointly develop solutions such as smart parking, waste and water management technologies and tools to monitor air quality and noise levels, and will invite citizens to assess the effect of these strategies before scaling them up. 

When an urban solution is created using the best available knowledge, and enjoys support from the people and private sector, it is more likely to make both financial and sustainable sense, noted Kabell. 

‘Idiotic’ not to share

Kabell added: “We are proud of what has been achieved in Copenhagen, and it would be idiotic to keep it to ourselves”.

Sharing ideas domestically and internationally is essential to making cities worldwide more resilient and climate-friendly, he noted.

For example, many coastal cities are located at the mouth of rivers, and face challenges such as rising sea levels, seasonal flooding, and water security. Some of them, such as Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, find it challenging to cope while others, such as Rotterdam in the Netherlands, have developed successful climate adaptation solutions.

To provide a platform for such cities to help each other, C40 members including Ho Chi Minh City, Rotterdam, Singapore, and Melbourne have come together under a Connecting Delta Cities network to share strategies for coping with climate change.

Nguyen Thanh Phong, chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee—an executive branch of the city—said it had benefited greatly from its membership in this network. 

“Adapting to climate change and its consequences is still a new issue for us, and we face many difficulties,” he said. “The city lacks an updated database, and we are working with a limited budget.”

The Connecting Delta Cities network in 2011 initiated a partnership between the Dutch and Vietnamese cities, where Rotterdam helped to develop and implement a climate adaptation plan for its Asian counterpart, based on its own successful experience in mitigating floods, groundwater shortages, and other issues. 

This cooperation has “helped drive social, economic, and development opportunities in adapting to climate change,” said Nguyen. “As experts in the C40 network talk about climate change adaptation, our city receives precious feedback on our programmes and projects.”

He added: “Such close collaborations need to be maintained in the future.”

This story was first published by the National Climate Change Secretariat. Subscribe to their newsletter here or like their Facebook page to receive regular updates on new articles.

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