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More cities declare climate emergencies: Will it spur real change?

Experts praise cities for highlighting the scale of the climate crisis but urge them to follow up with concrete actions.


More cities have recently declared ‘climate emergencies’, including Manchester, Paris, Cologne, Sydney and the biggest city yet to join the movement, New York. Several additional cities are expected to make announcements soon.


According to Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation in Action (Cedamia), over 775 jurisdictions globally have now declared a climate emergency. Advocacy group Climate Mobilization calculates that this covers parliaments in 16 countries.


Over 775 jurisdictions globally have now declared a climate emergency.


The latest announcements come at the same time as a new study finds that by 2050, 77 per cent of cities are highly likely to have a warmer climate that is closer to that of another existing city. The research from the Crowther Lab predicts that Madrid’s climate in 2050 will resemble Marrakech’s climate today, Stockholm will resemble Budapest, London will be more like Barcelona, and Tokyo’s climate will more closely resemble Changsha’s.


In addition, 22 per cent of cities will experience climate conditions that are not currently experienced by any existing major cities, the study finds.


Simon Hansen, director of regions, C40, a network of the world’s megacities collaborating to address climate change, told SmartCitiesWorld: “For more than a decade it has been mayors of the world’s big cities that have been the most vocal political champions of bold climate action. They see the impact of the climate crisis affecting their citizens, often the most vulnerable in society, every day.


“So it is not at all surprising that mayors are taking the stark warnings from scientists and listening to the demands of young people protesting on the streets, and therefore declaring climate emergencies. I expect it will help to accelerate the pace of climate action already underway in cities, which is absolutely right and necessary."


He noted that through C40’s Deadline 2020 initiative, for instance, more than 100 cities around the world have committed to climate action plans to reduce emissions and keep global temperature rise below 1.5 °C.


“So cities are delivering real change,” Hansen said.




Despite the scale of city-led climate declarations, which have accelerated following a spate of recent scientific reports, extreme weather events and public demonstrations, some have argued that the announcements risk doing little to advance real change, particularly as there is no single accepted meaning of a climate emergency.


While climate emergency declarations don’t typically don’t contain specific policy measures on how to slow climate change, many cities and countries have targets already in place such as becoming carbon-neutral by 2030 or even sooner but in some cases, these plans have also been criticised for lacking concrete detail.


Areeba Hamid, senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told SmartCitiesWorld: “All across the world, people are calling for action on climate change. That so many cities are now calling out the climate emergency is a sure sign of how difficult it is to ignore those calls for action.


“Calling out the situation has never been enough acting like it’s a climate emergency is the important part. Big cities are often trendsetters and as places where so many live and work, our cities have huge potential to make a difference on climate change. For example, we need to be seeing them backing measures that help people move from polluting cars to cycling and public transport.”


"Too often, we’ve seen cities declare an emergency and then back climate-wrecking policies like airport expansion.”


But, she added: “Too often, we’ve seen cities declare an emergency and then back climate-wrecking policies like airport expansion.”


A plan to make a plan?


Bristol City Council, which was the first UK council to declare a climate emergency, recently released its implementation plan for making Bristol City Council carbon neutral by 2025, followed by the whole city by 2030. The plan is due to be passed at a council meeting this month. It includes measures such as a 200 per cent increase in renewable energy; a target of 50,000 electric vehicles running in the city; retrofitting 7,000 homes every year to accelerate energy efficiency; and a trial to improve the business case for solar energy in social housing.


Bristol’s Mayor, Marvin Rees, said: “We are leading by example to bring Bristol together in the face of one of the biggest global threats facing our planet. We might be one city in the context of a worldwide issue but it’s vital we take immediate action for our citizens and work with them to empower them to contribute, addressing any barriers along the way.”


However, Bristol’s Green Party said the plan still “lacks substance” and urgency.


Sandy Hore-Ruthven, Bristol Green Party, said: “Although we welcome the Mayor’s commitment to the climate emergency, we need an ambitious and visionary set of actions that show bold leadership and the deep conviction needed to tackle to problems we face.


"The newly published plan does not reflect the urgency of the issue. In fact, it is a collection of existing projects, many of which were started by previous administrations. The report does little to identify a strategic approach or pin down concrete actions. A plan to make a plan is not what we need right now.”


He added: “The technology and ideas to create a zero-carbon economy already exist and many of them are simple – renewable energy, a good public transport system and insulated homes.”


Cities’ unique role


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, published by the United Nations in October 2018, concluded that allowing global temperature rise to exceed 1.5°C will disrupt basic social and economic activities around the world with the most extreme consequences for much of the population in the Global South.


A summary of key findings from the IPCC report, compiled by the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy and C40 Cities, concluded that cities have a “unique opportunity” to limit global temperature rise.


Cities have a “unique opportunity” to limit global temperature rise.


The report found that consistent action from cities is key because they concentrate opportunities to address many of the causes and impacts of climate change on a systemic level. It said city leaders can take action faster than other levels of government and that they can more easily innovate scalable solutions than other levels of government.


However, C40’s Hansen commented: “Mayors can’t deliver the Paris Agreement alone.


“I’d like to see business leaders, activists, scientists, investors, community groups and citizens working together to define and shape the global response to the climate emergencies we all face.


"By working together, they will transform the world’s great cities and collectively they can prevent the climate crisis from destroying the world as we know it.”


The United Nations warns that the world has less than 12 years left to limit climate change catastrophe.


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