A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. So begins Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, set in Paris and London during the French Revolution. Fast forward to the 21st century and Paris, London and many other cities are undergoing a very different type of revolution – this time an environmental one. And it is still the best of times and the worst of times.


Facing the increasingly real prospect of climate change, many cities are transforming themselves into sustainable, resilient agents of change. Buildings are being refurbished to become energy efficient and smart. Renewable energy and district heating networks are being introduced. Transport systems are being decarbonised with electric vehicles, congestion charges and bicycle hire schemes. It is the best of times, because many cities have become genuine leaders in the move to a low carbon economy. It is the worst of times, because on a global scale still nowhere near enough is happening.


As home to over half the world’s population and consumer of over 70 percent of its energy, cities have long been major contributors to climate change. But cities are also increasingly being seen as central to the solution. City governments are often nimbler than national governments, making it easier for them to take bold action on climate change. And many cities are facing imminent direct physical consequences of climate change, which means they are strongly motivated to act. All this explains why cities have been such a focus at COP21, which has seen representatives from hundreds of cities from around the world descend on Paris to play an active part in proceedings.


The problem is that, for all of the progress being made by leading cities such as Copenhagen and Vancouver, there are thousands more cities that have yet to begin their journey. These cities need to define low carbon visions, establish carbon inventories, set meaningful reduction targets, identify mitigation opportunities and, crucially, secure funding to implement them. In parallel, many cities also need to start adapting to the imminent physical consequences of climate change such as rising sea levels, rising temperatures and increasing rainfall.


But many cities simply do not have the means to do these things. For all their nimbleness and motivation, they lack funding and they lack expertise. Some funding is being made available through schemes such as the UK Government’s Strategic Prosperity Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank’s Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative, but relatively speaking only a handful of cities have benefitted to date. And while initiatives such as the World Bank’s City Climate Planner professional certification programme, which is being developed with support from the Carbon Trust, C40, ICLEI and others, are helping cities to build expertise, limited resources and competing priorities means not enough cities are benefitting from them.


So what more can be done? A good place to start would be scaling up assistance for cities through initiatives such as the Carbon Trust’s Low Carbon Cities programme, which has helped cities in the UK, China, Mexico and Malaysia to develop carbon reduction strategies. The programme’s success lies in its collaborative approach. It is led by city governments, championed by the public sector, actively supported by the private sector and owned by the entire community. For cities such as Bristol – currently the European Green Capital – the Low Carbon Cities programme was their first step towards becoming a genuine low carbon leader. For current participants in the programme such as Petaling Jaya and Guadalajara, it is helping to establish solid platforms from which to embark on their low carbon journeys.


Expectations for COP21 are high. Clearly the most important objective is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement that will keep global warming within 2oC above preindustrial levels. But any agreement will be hollow unless it is backed up by concrete initiatives to deliver the desired outcomes. It has never been clearer that cities have a huge role to play in this, especially given the UN’s mind-boggling prediction that the number of people living in cities will increase by up to 3 billion in the next 30 years. Therefore if COP21 can help to unlock funding for large-scale assistance to cities, then on one count at least it will be deemed a genuine success.


This article is published as part of the Carbon Trust's COP21 Blog Series: The Road to Paris is Paved with Good Intentions.