COP21 just a partial success for cities and regions

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Markku Markkula [Open days/Flickr]

For cities and regions across the European Union, the landmark deal at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), was a historic – but only a partial – success, writes Markku Markkula.

Markku Markkula is the President of the European Committee of the Regions.

If anything, the Paris climate talks were a masterclass in diplomacy. After a series of failing international climate conferences, the French government and the UNFCCC must be applauded for hammering out a near 200 country-agreement that has brought the world on a joint path to halt climate change. There is now a shared global political will to limit temperatures rises well below 2°C and aspiring to keep them below 1.5°C.

For cities and regions the deal, whilst being a historic watershed moment, was still merely a partial success.

For the first time the final climate text explicitly recognises what should be blindingly obvious: cities and regions have a crucial role in fighting climate change. However, we at the European Committee of the Regions (COR) – a political assembly of local and regional politicians – wanted more. As well as more ambitious commitments from the world’s states, we wanted a decisive ‘Action Plan’ for cities and regions. This would have made sub-national authorities part of the world’s climate governance system, with a more integrated role in the UN climate process.

Local governments have worked hard for even this modest recognition. In 2008, backed by European Commission funds and supported by the COR, the Covenant of Mayors was launched which voluntarily commits local governments to cut 20% of 1990 levels of carbon emissions by 2020. This has been a real success. Today over 6,500 communities have signed up representing over 200m citizens. The Compact of Mayors, a network of municipal networks, has followed a similar approach.

Communities and local leaders have reaped the benefits from taking this bottom-up approach and have mobilised themselves, revealing a deep groundswell of political and public will to help the climate and explore the opportunities offered by a lower-carbon economy. There have been similar shifts in other parts of society. In the wake of COP21, the media is giving a great deal of credit to civil society, and rightly so. Like cities, non-governmental organisations have been rising to the challenge of climate change.

Role of local politicians

In practice, the role and influence of local and regional politicians after COP21 remains as it was before: they need to continue to mobilise themselves, because national governments’ efforts to tackle climate change remain simply insufficient. The Paris climate agreement is a monumental turning point but still, based on current contributions by countries, it won’t be enough to stop temperatures dangerously rising above 2°C. Now we need concrete action processes in all parts of the world to implement the Paris agreement.

Where do we go next? Cities and regions – who are responsible for 70% of climate mitigation and 90% of climate adaptation measures – will continue to expand their bottom-up approach upwards and outwards. The Covenant of Mayors is being opened up to become a truly global movement (alreadycities and towns in over 50 non-EU countries have joined the initiative). At the COP21, the Covenant of Mayors and the Compact of Mayors formed a partnership. The Covenant of Mayors now automatically feeds its data into NAZCA, a UN platform that systematically gathers information about climate action by cities, regions, business and NGOs. There are more and more examples of such collaboration and convergence.

From my vantage point, all of this activity feels hopeful and inspiring. At the COP21 I spoke from the podium to a room packed with mayors from across the globe and realised that these are people committed to creating a greener, safer, more sustainable reality for many millions of people. I looked at the new signatories to the Covenant of Mayors and am pleasantly surprised that as an example, 98 towns and cities in Ukraine have joined.

What is clear is that we now need to look forward to find a way to actually deliver on the Paris promise. In the aftermath of the COP it is clear the huge challenge remains. We need to decarbonise cities and regions that house billions of people, not just hundreds of millions. Ukrainian politicians may be ambitious for their people and eager for the support of the Covenant of Mayors, but parts of the EU still have very few signatories (there are just six in the Czech Republic). The EU is still a long way from delivering the policies we need. The COR has been calling for the EU to cut greenhouse gases by 50% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels). In the EU and in international talks, there needs to be more debate about a carbon tax, about ending fossil-fuel subsidies, and easing the access of sub-national governments to climate funding.

At the COR, we will continue to move on with even greater determination. Globally, we will increase contacts and collaboration with cities and regions on other continents as well as with networks such as ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability). At the regional level, we will help the Covenant of Mayors to expand within Europe, in its neighbourhood and further afield. Within the EU’s institutional landscape, we will try to ensure that policymakers know and use the experience and advice of local and regional leaders.

The Paris talks are a milestone and an incentive to pick up the pace of change. We must wait and see whether national governments take the necessary ambitious steps and not just talk the talk instead of taking urgent decisive action. Let us also not forget it took 21 COPs to persuade national governments to accept that municipal and regional leaders have a role to play in limiting climate change. Our hope is that it will be just one more year, at the COP22 in Marrakech, before national governments allow cities and regions to be integrated into global plans to help the climate. To sit around the table and show how we can create truly sustainable communities, introduce innovative new ideas and move towards a low-carbon society that will actually avert the impact of climate change.

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