Cities should pick the right partners to fight climate change
Cities are a key actor in the fight against climate change; whom they join forces with makes all the difference.
The biggest global challenge for humanity is climate change. Cities are a key actor in the fight against climate change. Cities in developed countries are proactively acting to protect themselves from climate change. On the other side, cities in developing countries struggle to react to climate impacts with limited resources. Cities join associations called city networks to help each other on tackling climate change. However, it is unclear if every city benefits from the city networks. It is important to make sure that every local government gets the support they need according to their situation.
Climate change is humanity's biggest challenge.
The year 2020 taught us the impact global crisis could have on humanity. As vaccines get closer, the end of the COVID pandemic comes near. Now we should ask, where should we work to avoid the next crisis? Climate change is the obvious answer.
Climate change is caused when we put gases in the atmosphere that trap heat and make it warmer. We are reaching the limit of nature’s capacity to take these gases out of the air.
As the heat accumulates in the atmosphere, its impact on weather patterns becomes evident. High heat in the atmosphere leads to more water evaporating, which causes stronger hurricanes if this happens on the sea or more severe droughts if it happens inland.
Overall, climate change is bringing more extreme weather globally.
Since weather affects every human activity, we feel its indirect impacts everywhere. Impacts on food supply, forest fires, and tropical diseases extending to new areas can be linked to climate change. Melting ice poles threaten coastal cities and decrease the planet's cooling capacity, causing even more warming.
Is your city proactive or reactive when tackling climate change?
Cities producing 70% of climate emissions makes them a key actor in the fight against climate change. “Cities are where the climate battle will be won or lost,” said the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in a conference in 2018.
However, not all cities experience climate change in the same way. Cities in developed countries have the resources and knowledge to prepare for climate change proactively. Advanced cities switch to more sustainable forms of transportation, reducing their emissions. Increased green areas and climate systems keep their population comfortable. Countries like the Netherlands have built expensive infrastructure to protect themselves from sea level rise.
In the developing world, the story is very different. Coastal cities in many developing countries are facing stronger and more frequent hurricanes. Floodings in Bangladesh are destroying crops putting hundreds of millions already in dire conditions under even more stress. Droughts, exacerbated by climate change, have been a contributing factor to wars in the Middle East.
Not everyone will suffer equally from climate change.
When dealing with climate change, wealthier cities are better positioned to protect their population. Advanced cities have set up strategies to guarantee the safety of their citizens. Simultaneously, these cities are promoting green sectors that will allow them to grow their economies while reducing their emissions. By being proactive, these cities are using climate change as an opportunity for development.
People living in developing cities face a very different reality. Already affected by chronic challenges, these cities find climate change as a new risk on the list. These cities take a reactive role in protecting their population with limited resources while simultaneously dealing with multiple challenges.
Local governments cooperate through city networks.
Local governments are joining associations called city networks to make a global impact. These associations allow for the exchange of knowledge and resources between governments and other organizations. City networks also lobby on behalf of cities to national governments and international organizations, and showcase best practices at international conferences.
At first sight, joining a city network seems like a good move for cities. Yet, municipal officers face confusion on choosing which networks to join (Acuto et al., 2017). Some of these networks push cities to implement higher standards, such as eliminating their net emissions (reaching net-zero emissions). Other networks emphasize capacity building and provide resources to cities. Cities need to find the right network according to their situation.
Since cities are facing different challenges, they need support in different ways. Some cities might need to learn about solutions, while others need resources to implement solutions they already identified. Other cities need help in changing or complying with the regulations they are subject to. Cities that have already implemented solutions might help others by sharing their experiences.
Luckily city networks have been increasing and diversifying, so there are different options available for cities. However, it’s not always easy to differentiate the networks. From the outside, many networks seem similar, so cities get attracted to the bigger or more famous ones regardless of whether they fit the cities' needs. This can lead to cities joining networks from which they can’t benefit easily. In those cases, the cities that have a climate strategy beforehand are the ones that get all the benefits. So every city must have a clear idea of what they need from the network before joining.
Even in city networks, inequality between cities is evident. Research by Davidson et al. (2019) found that “major city networks are led, financed and coordinated” (p. 3544) by cities in developed countries. We might welcome the leadership to bring the cities together against a global challenge; however, we have to ask, for whose benefit are they doing this? The crude answer is that international cooperation works based on actors finding win-win opportunities. For cities to identify these opportunities, they need to be clear about what they need and have their own goals. This might come as a surprise to some cities that used to be protected by higher government levels. However, in the international setting, it´s up to the local governments themselves to have their own strategies and protect themselves from external actors' influence.
An example of things well done.
The need to be clear, and perhaps a bit selfish, on your needs when reaching for help in city networks should not scare local governments. Most of the actors working on fighting climate change have an authentic intention to solve this problem.
A successful example from the city network CityNet (https://citynet-ap.org/) involved the collaboration between Iloilo in the Philippines and Yokohama in Japan. Like many other coastal cities in the Philippines, Iloilo is often hit by typhoons. Every year these typhoons would not only destroy property but take away some lives with them. Yokohama is also a coastal city and has a long tradition of dealing with natural disasters that gave it knowledge and disaster management experience. CityNet connected these two cities in two 3-year collaborations in which Yokohama officials trained Iloilo ones and helped them set up a proper strategy and facilities for disaster management.
The project results were put on a test when the Philippines got hit by a powerful typhoon in the last year of the project. Iloilo was part of the cities hit by it, but luckily there were no fatalities in Iloilo. This was associated with citizens and government officials being well trained and had the basic equipment. Simple things like knowing where to go when facing a natural disaster allowed the population to survive. This shows that cooperation can make an important difference in developing countries, even with limited resources.
We are all in the same boat.
The world is so connected that the flooding of crops in one city can affect the availability of food on the other side of the world. Living in a rich, well-prepared city can’t protect you from the negative impacts of climate change happening anywhere else in the world.
In the same way, that the COVID pandemic won’t be over until everyone is safe. We need to work together globally to protect everyone against climate change. For cities, this means making sure every city can find the support they need.
City networks should be more transparent on their objectives and actions to make cities find the right network easier. Only in this way, we won’t leave any city behind, and we can all face climate change together.
Cities should have a local plan to address climate change and seek the resources they need beyond their borders if necessary. They will find that many organizations, such as city networks, are willing to help them.
Acuto, M, Morissette, M and Tsouros, A (2017). City Diplomacy: Towards More Strategic Networking? Learning with WHO Healthy Cities. Global Policy, 8, 14–22.
Davidson, K, Coenen, L, Acuto, M, and Gleeson, B (2019). Reconfiguring urban governance in an age of rising city networks: A research agenda. Urban Studies, 56, 3540–3555.