Three Big Opportunities for Meaningful Progress on Climate Change at Climate Summit

By Holger Dalkmann, Acting Global Director Cities And Transport – Director EMBARQ, World Resources Institute (WRI)

City leaders have a key role to play at next week’s UN Climate Summit in New York City, which brings together heads of state, mayors, business leaders, and civil society to build momentum towards an international agenda to tackle climate change and build resilience.

The window of opportunity to make meaningful progress in the battle against climate change is shrinking. This is especially true in cities, which are set to gain 1.4 billion people in the next 20 years and develop trillions of dollars in new infrastructure. Seventy percent of global greenhouse gas emissions originate in cities, and these same cities expected to bear the brunt of climate change impacts. Similarly, transport – and the relationship between transport and urban land use – has a key role to play. The transport sector accounts for 22% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, a proportion increasing faster than any other sector.

Multinational organizations and associations are expected to announce a set of commitments related to rail, public transport, and electric mobility.

In addition to the announcements expected next week, leaders gathered at the Summit can focus on three big opportunities: urban resilience, measuring and managing greenhouse gas emissions, and sustainable finance.

Transport to Support Urban Climate Resilience

Cities are not only major contributors to global climate change, but also the battleground where the negative impacts of climate change will play out. An estimated 360 million urban residents worldwide live in areas prone to flooding, sea level rise, and storm surges.

To protect citizens and economic assets, cities must plan for the long term. This means investing in climate-resilient infrastructure, including transport, as well as curbing emissions. The cost of adapting to climate change for the world’s cities is estimated at $70 billion to $100 billion per year. Cities in the developing world are expected to bear 80 percent of the global costs of adapting to these impacts.

Measuring and Managing Greenhouse Gas Emissions to Spur Low-Carbon Action

Most cities do not employ a common standard for tracking their greenhouse gas emissions. At next week’s Summit, we will see that change.

By signing on to the Compact of Mayors – a new agreement spearheaded by international city networks – leading mayors will commit to four steps toward a more transparent approach to climate action in cities:

In doing so, these cities will also commit for the first time to a standard method of measuring and reporting emissions at the city level. A global standard and partnership – like the Global Protocol for Community Scale Emissions – can increase the data accuracy necessary to spur climate action, establish an international benchmark for city-level emissions, and help cities build the case to finance low-carbon development. This, in turn, can allow cities to unlock the local benefits of sustainable transport – like reducing traffic congestion and improving public health – while combating global climate change.[HD1] 

Closing the Finance Gap

The innovative cities nominated for 2014’s City Climate Leadership Awards show the range of approaches cities have taken to become more sustainable. The challenge is making these ideas a worldwide reality.

In emerging economies, growing populations mean city leaders must invest in infrastructure now that will last for decades. The World Bank has estimated that closing the infrastructure gap in developing cities requires US$ 1 trillion per year. By contrast, official development aid (ODA) – an important financial flow to emerging economies – stands at only US$ 135 billion annually.

The City Climate Finance Leadership Alliance addresses this challenge by creating a network where city leaders and national and international financing bodies can exchange ideas and create a marketplace for low-carbon projects. The alliance’s action statement – expected to be endorsed by a number of leading international organizations, NGOs, and development finance institutions at the Summit – sets the goal of closing the investment gap in sustainable cities within the next 15 years.

On top of these three expected outcomes, the Summit also kicks off two years of globally important climate negotiations in Lima and Paris, the formation of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and 2016’s HABITAT III conference on housing and sustainable urban development.