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Time for a new approach on climate

As Cop28 commences and national governments falter, we need to recognise the central role of cities in the fight against climate change.

By Sadiq Khan

In September – on the same day the UK government was rowing back on its green commitments – I told a meeting of world leaders at the UN that our cities had a pivotal role to play in protecting our environment and safeguarding our civilisation’s future. In fact, with urban areas consuming 75 per cent of global primary energy, I emphasised that our cities could be climate titans, using our might and muscle to accelerate the shift to net zero – thereby making a decisive difference in this decisive decade.

For too long, our cities have been regarded as peripheral to the climate fight. But that is now beginning to change, with growing recognition that we are central to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and averting a devastating breakdown in our climate. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has said: “Cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost.”

This increasing focus on cities as key actors in the climate struggle is welcome. And it explains why, for the first time ever, cities are being afforded a much-needed platform at Cop28. The Local Climate Action Summit, which will take place during the world’s foremost climate conference has been co-ordinated by Bloomberg Philanthropies. It will bring together hundreds of sub-national climate leaders from around the world, giving our cities a voice in some of the most consequential discussions of our time.

This is a significant development and one that couldn’t come a moment too soon. Our planet is facing an escalating climate crisis, evidenced not only by alarming scientific reports, but climate-induced natural disasters that are wreaking havoc, destruction and suffering across the globe. There is no clearer example illustrating the urgency of action than the recent unprecedented heatwaves of more than 50 degrees in the US and China, and the terrible flooding which has claimed dozens of lives in Brazil. Closer to home, this year London has seen the hottest July and September since records began.

Indeed, scarcely a week goes by without news of a major climate-related natural disaster. The World Meteorological Organisation reported that this past summer was our hottest on record. Multi-billion-dollar natural disasters, once rare, now occur with disturbing frequency. And between 2016 and 2021, 43 million children around the world were displaced by climate related storms, floods, fires and other extreme weather events. 

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Amid this torrent of bad news and human misery, it’s easy to despair. But thankfully, our cities offer grounds for hope. While national governments have too often been the climate delayers, the opposite has been true for our cities who are irrefutably the climate doers. The UK government might have backtracked on its green pledges – undermining business confidence and making it more likely that Britain will fall behind in the global race for green jobs and the clean industries of the future. But in London we’re continuing to move ahead, implementing the world’s largest clean air zone and bringing forward our net-zero target from 2050 to 2030.

[See also: How London and Boston are using their financial muscle to divest from fossil fuels]

Encouragingly, London is by no means alone. This same story of action is being replicated across the globe. From Los Angeles signing a directive to phase out oil and gas drilling, to Rio de Janeiro’s efforts to significantly reduce carbon emissions, cities are leading the charge. It’s why national governments must now work to empower us to make an even bigger difference. They can do this in three specific ways.

First, there should be a formal recognition of local climate action plans. With only a fraction of current national climate pledges acknowledging the role of local and regional leadership, nations must remedy this and pledge to fully utilise the energy, expertise and capacity of cities to meet their future climate targets.

Secondly, nations must commit to delivering more capital and technical support for local climate action. The current global climate finance reaching local governments is insufficient. Nations should expand policies and financial mechanisms to help finance local climate initiatives. 

Finally, there should be a dedicated forum for continuous political dialogue between national and urban climate leaders. This forum should build on the inaugural Local Climate Action Summit, with the objective of identifying and scaling climate solutions through collaboration rather than working in isolation.

The potential economic benefits are staggering, with emission reduction strategies involving cities potentially generating trillions of dollars in net value by 2050. While the will to act is present in many local leaders, we require more support to achieve our ambitious climate goals of ending our addiction to fossil fuels and building the new green economy of the future. The success of our collective climate endeavours depends on forging new, collaborative partnerships across all levels of government. If we can continue to do this, our cities will be freed not only to make a meaningful contribution, but to be at the very forefront of our battle against the climate emergency.

[See also: Five things to watch out for at Cop28]

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