Metropolitan climate policy – a problem of scale

Can urban solutions be taken global?

Jeroen van der Heijden

Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia, Asia, The World

26 September 2019

City-level action is making a positive difference in the face of climate change, but to meet global targets current initiatives must be scaled urgently. Understanding how to scale best is a pressing challenge, Jeroen van der Heijden writes.

Cities are clearly contributing to climate change. It will also be in cities where the consequences of climate change are likely to be felt most severely.

It is in light of this that they have become a place where interventions for climate change adaptation are tested, and where climate action experiments have the best potential to be implemented for the first time to be eventually scaled up.

Seeking to utilise their climate mitigation and adaptation potential, cities around the globe have become sites of innovative and experimental governance to spur on climate action.

More on this: What makes a city more liveable?

An example is the Better Building Partnership in Sydney, a collaboration between the city government and property owners. It is now on track to reduce the carbon emissions of participating buildings to 70 per cent of 2006 levels by 2030.

Following these developments, interest in urban climate governance has grown rapidly. Yet, international research indicates that, despite the promise cities hold, there are demanding research challenges for the critical decade that lies ahead of us.

Urban climate governance may be high on the agenda of many cities around the globe, but at the moment there is more rhetoric than action. Only a handful of large and wealthy cities in the global north are taking meaningful, large-scale climate action.

More on this: Delhi: megacity, megatraffic, and megapollution

We do not know much about what is happening in the global south. Further, current climate action at the city-level often appears insufficient to meet targets set in, for example, the Paris Agreement.

While we know much about local best practice, such as innovative forms of climate financing for building retrofits or the labelling of energy-efficient buildings, we know little about the pathways that may lead to effective urban climate governance at regional, national and, international level.

Scholars repeatedly stress that there is no single ‘best practice’ route to the low-carbon, climate-resilient city and that there are potentially many pathways for governing urban climate transitions.

More on this: How we discovered the climate problem

What these pathways look like in reality remains an open question. It is also unclear how difficult it will be for policymakers to manage them effectively.

When it comes to our ability to mitigate climate change in general, things are not looking bright. Unfortunately, there is too little time for the challenges that we haven’t been able to tackle over the last few decades, and scaling up these city-level efforts will be tough.

At the city-level, cost-effective climate change mitigation technology and unobtrusive behavioural change designed to deal with the issue has been around for a long time, but unfortunately, there is not much evidence that points at a sudden acceleration of uptake of this technology nationally or internationally. Hopefully, this pessimism is misplaced.

This action, however, does still hold great potential to slow down and limit climate change. To see this potential scaled up to achieve more ambitious goals, it is necessary that urban climate governance scholarship quickly changes course.

While the desire to map, explore, and interrogate niche innovations around the globe is laudable, it is equally and perhaps even more – important to make use of the knowledge base that we have already.

There are many good examples of urban governance that has spurred on climate action. It is essential to embrace these and find out how we can scale them up, only then can they become the norm, rather than the exception.

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