What local and regional government leaders at COP22 can teach the world

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

The coming months will reveal whether the EU is willing to take the level of action necessary to protect those in Europe and around the world from the multiple crises that face it, argues Tara Connolly. [Takver/ Flickr]

As COP22 begins to draw to a close, Gino Van Begin calls on all involved parties to roll up their sleeves and start implementing climate action immediately.

Gino Van Begin is Secretary-General of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, a global network of more than 1,500 cities, towns and regions committed to building a sustainable future.

If we were to focus solely on what dominated the climate change headlines recently, we might feel disheartened by the perceived risk to the momentous advancement of the global climate agenda.

However, COP22 reaffirms the breadth and scope of the climate movement. A multitude of local and regional leaders, activists and business leaders have joined the summit to push for climate action to maintain the current course regardless of national political uncertainties.

At international level, we have a clear global consensus that sustainability is the necessary direction of change. The past two years have turned around a number of ambitious agreements and new global agendas that, when implemented, will change the course of global development.

If taken as a whole, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and, more recently, the New Urban Agenda, outline the vision of a world where low-carbon technologies are the norm and local development is sustainable for the planet and the people inhabiting it.

We have begun an important and transformative journey in which we must connect and implement these agendas to sustain and strengthen the climate movement. Local leaders from Europe and around the world must push for strong global frameworks while also paving a path to move forward regardless of international political discussions.

Nations have done their part in creating this global consensus and must continue building a strong implementation architecture. However, if we are looking for dedicated and hard-working climate leaders that are closest to climate-related issues, we must think not in terms of individuals or nations, but rather in terms of local and regional leaders, networks and their communities.

Local and subnational leaders have been at the forefront of climate action for a while now. More than 720 local and regional governments, impacting almost 10% of the global population, have already pledged over 1 GtCO2e GHG emissions reductions by 2020 to our carbonn Climate Registry.

This is a strong message, if compared to the existing 15 GtCO2e gap between current emissions reduction pledged by nations and what would be needed to keep global temperatures to rise over 2 degrees Celsius.

At the same time, cities are also increasingly looking to establish long-term climate targets. While the majority of Nationally Determined Contributions set targets for 2025 and 2030, local and regional leaders are planning their climate actions all the way to 2050. Many of them are already charting a path towards carbon neutrality.

The reality is that climate change is already affecting our cities and regions. Local leaders must do their part to mitigate their emissions, while working quickly to build resilience and adapt to an already changing climate.

Awareness of the need for resilience building in the developed world, and particularly in Europe, is growing rapidly. Indeed, although Asia and Africa are currently bearing the brunt of early climate change, cities and regions of the north are also undergoing multiple stresses that require long-sightedness, stronger resources and dedicated local efforts.

In order to meet the policy goals of the Europe 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, €1.5 trillion to €2 trillion will need to be invested in a strategic and targeted way to promote green, resilient infrastructure and local initiatives.

At COP22, local leaders brought to myriad events and panels their message of ongoing commitment as well as their request to national governments for frameworks that would enable them to do more and more rapidly. One personal story, shared by Vice Mayor for Environment and Transport of Oslo, Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, summarises the spirit that needs to guide us in the next couple of years.

In 2009, Berg was a youth activist during COP15 in Copenhagen, where she witnessed the climate movement failing to secure that very ambitious agreement which was to be reached six years later in Paris.

Such a major setback only served to convince her – and many other activists, local leaders and business leaders – of the immediate need for renewed engagement by all. This, in turn, motivated her to enter politics to then become a prominent civil servant, able to bring forward an increasingly ambitious agenda for local climate action.

As we look ahead to 2017, we need to keep pushing forward with the same level of determination. Local governments and citizens all across Europe will play a crucial role not only in keeping the momentum for local climate action, but also in pushing national governments and European institutions to stay true to their commitments from last year and increase their level of ambition, by doing at least three things:

  1. Start immediately early implementation of climate change action. The next five years will be crucial for our ability to stay under a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures;
  1. Define clear 2050 targets, that show the whole trajectory of their climate commitments, including progressive and decided phase-out of fossil fuels;
  1. Keep their promise to fund developing countries in coping with climate change and earmarking a sizable proportion of such funds for resilience-building projects.

Local governments at COP22 are telling us not to dwell or rely solely on the international architecture being built post-Paris. Instead, all actors need to roll up their sleeves and start transforming climate ambitions into reality through any means possible.

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