Choose Your Future: Why cities matter when tackling climate change

Banner image: Denys Nevozhai
Choose Your Future: Why cities matter when tackling climate change

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“As cities go, so does the climate”. These bold words from Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, came out ahead of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in September 2019. As home to the majority of the earth’s population, emissions and economic activity, cities are often seen as drivers of climate change – but they are one of the most vital solutions. Their density, economies of scale and capacity to generate and absorb innovation means that cities offer the potential to dramatically reduce emissions while improving people’s quality of life. 

We know the world is facing a climate emergency. To limit the impacts of devastating climate change for us and future generations, we must embrace ambitious mobilisation to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to its current effects. Cities around the world are already showing leadership in this space. Nearly 10,000 cities and local governments worldwide have committed to set emission reduction targets and prepare strategic plans to deliver on them. As part of C40 Cities’ Deadline 2020 initiative, 118 cities have committed to create Paris Agreement-compatible climate action plans. States, cities and businesses representing more than half of the United States’ economy and population have joined America’s Pledge to meet the country’s Paris Agreement.


The role of national governments

However, even the largest, most empowered city governments can realise only a fraction of their emissions reduction potential when working alone – national governments have a vital role to play. Worldwide, local governments have primary authority or influence over just a third of urban mitigation potential (excluding decarbonisation of electricity). National and state governments have primary authority over another third, and the final third depends on collaborative climate action among national, regional and local governments. This means that bold national leadership is needed to deliver these emissions reductions and enable local governments to go further, faster. 

Some countries are already demonstrating this bold leadership. Seven countries, including India, Ethiopia and Costa Rica, have submitted Nationally Determined Contributions that are compatible with less than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming. Many more countries are investing in sustainable technologies, such as China’s proliferation of electric transportation or Germany’s success in greening their electricity grid.

Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute's Climate Action Tracker

Ramping up ambition in 2020

Scientific analysis shows the sum of current commitment falls far short of what is needed. When countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2014, it was already clear that the first round of commitments didn’t go far enough to protect people and the planet from the devastating effects of climate change.

There is still time for us choose a future without climate catastrophe – but that window of opportunity is closing fast.

As we approach the deadline for the first enhancement of Nationally Determined Contributions at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP26) next year, it’s clear the political landscape has changed. The past five years has seen radical shifts in attitude, with the global youth mobilisations, technological developments and a clearer idea of the economic opportunity offered by climate-compatible development.


With just a decade left to halve our global carbon emissions, national decision-makers – and the citizens, voters and protesters that shape their agendas – have an unprecedented opportunity to protect and improve the lives of generations to come. 

Moving Beyond a Future of Fear and Frustration: Just Transition will enable ambitious climate action by Sharan BurrowGeneral Secretary, ITUC

Moving Beyond a Future of Fear and Frustration: Just Transition will enable ambitious climate action by Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, ITUC

The urban opportunity

To do this, national governments must seize the opportunities cities offer for low-carbon, climate-resilient development. Our Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity report shows that, by transforming cities, national and local governments can achieve economic prosperity and improve quality of life while tackling the climate crisis. Our research shows that technologies currently available can lower urban emissions by 90% by 2050, and that inclusive, zero-carbon cities will be healthier places to live and more productive places to work. By 2050, zero-carbon cities will have been nearly USD 24 trillion cheaper to build, power and operate.

Download the full Coalition for Urban Transitions report Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity or read the executive summary online

Coalition for Urban Transitions: Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity

As part of our research, we created a series of priorities to help national governments unleash the power of cities. The priorities are listed below, and we welcome feedback on our suggestions and approach from members of the Forum Network. The first priority is for national governments to put cities at the heart of a national strategy to deliver shared prosperity while reaching net-zero emissions. Once this clear vision is in place, it can guide decision-making across ministries, including how national governments (1) reform national policies, (2) fund and finance sustainable urban infrastructure, (3) empower and enable local governments and (4) engage with multilateral systems. All these actions will be most successful if underpinned by a commitment to a just transition.

The Just Transition Centre
Image: Coalition for Urban Transitions, 2019

What changes would these priorities bring? There’s no doubt that when the move towards zero-carbon cities happens, citizens lives will change. But in many cases, a zero-carbon transformation would just offer more of what already makes cities great: compact, connected developments will bring people closer to places to work, shop, meet and play, while economies of scale would pull workers and businesses to the forefront of exciting innovations that make the whole country more competitive. Meanwhile, the air pollution that poisons us all would be a memory as distant and horrifying as the infections that ravaged cities before sewers and antibiotics. 

There is still time for us choose a future without climate catastrophe – but that window of opportunity is closing fast. National governments must seize the urban opportunity and commit to more ambitious emissions reductions at COP26. 

Discussion Questions

  • For readers associated with city or sub-national governments, what could your national government do to enable you to act more boldly on climate change mitigation and adaptation?
  • To what extent do you think climate- and justice-focused protests and social movements are creating political space for national governments to take ambitious climate action in cities?

Related Topics

Climate Sustainable Development Goals

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excellent article and more successes