Five Ways Cities are Leading the Fight Against Climate Change

Cities, not countries, will lead the world in climate action in the coming decades.

chrispieperChris Pieper ’18 was one of the Macalester students who went to Paris for COP21 through Professor Roopali Phadke’s class “Climate Talks: Dispatches from Paris.” Roopali Phadke is on the Climate Generation Advisory Board, and connected Chris to our organization. As part of the class, he conducted research and wrote a paper about the role of cities in addressing climate change. The following is a summary of his findings.

The United Nation’s COP21 climate talks, or 21st Conference of the Parties, was an international climate change negotiation that took place in Paris during the first two weeks of December. At the conclusion of the conference, the parties representing nearly 200 nations agreed and signed onto an unprecedented agreement, pledging to take action in the fight against climate change.


The deal that was reached only weeks ago ended more than two decades of inaction on a global level, giving the world a sense of hope for tackling climate change. Yet with the devastating impacts of climate change beginning to manifest, and growing every year, attention has already started to be redirected to other, more effective, potential agents of change. Cities, where half the world currently lives and where, by 2030, an estimated 70% of people will live, are increasingly being seen as the new frontier in the climate fight.

After listening to messages from organizations and local leaders themselves at COP21, here are five key ways I believe that cities are leading the charge against climate change.

They lead by example

By setting examples of climate action, cities are inspiring national governments to take action on climate change. Cities show that action is not only possible, but essential. Individually, they put pressure on their respective national governments to also step up when it comes to addressing climate change.

“I’m asking national governments to listen to the cities, because I think cities are ahead in terms of targets and the means of achieving those targets.” –Mayor George Ferguson of Bristol, UK, this year’s European Green Capital (an annual award sponsored by the European Commision)

“We have huge projects to reduce vulnerability. We need to work on mobilizing. . . the type of infrastructure that has the capacity to pass through disasters, so that our goals for development will continue.” –Mayor Diriba Kuma of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

“When we developed Sustainable City 2030, we made the commitment to reduce our emissions 70 percent by 2030. That’s been an overarching, strong commitment, and I can report that we’ve now already reduced our emissions by 23 percent and we’re on track to reduce them by 26 percent by next year.” –Lord Mayor Clover Moore of Sydney, Australia

They innovate

Cities have a unique role in fostering innovation, which is sorely needed for successful implementation of actions to curb climate change as well as adapt to its effects. These innovations are not only technical, but also political and financial, as cities are coming up with creative ideas to fund and implement climate-related projects.

“So, thinking about [climate action and] resiliency is also thinking about, in very unorthodox ways, different solutions that you maybe never thought of… it’s really important to think outside the box.” –Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, Netherlands

“[We’re] making use of the fact that we have some innovative ideas of funding things. We set up our own currency, the Bristol Pound. It ensures a circular economy.” –Mayor Ferguson

They’re testing grounds

Cities are well-positioned to test ideas before implementing them on a large scale. And with well-established connections among local entities, such as the Compact of Mayors and C40 Cities, they can easily share innovative ideas that work and give feedback on ideas that don’t.

“Cities prove it can be done. We create the evidence that these things actually can- that human behavior- can be changed. That there are innovative ways to pay for these changes. And we can kind of be the ‘testing grounds’ for different practices and create not just the political momentum, but the proof that it works.” –Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, CA

They implement & adapt

Cities are at the frontlines when it comes to implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. National governments might set targets, but cities have a significant role in working to hit them. This is true not only for mitigation efforts, which are already underway, but also for adaptation efforts – a key component of climate action that will only grow more important as the effects of climate change materialize in stronger ways.

“After the agreement is reached, who’s going to be the first to start implementing that? It’s going to be the mayors at their desks the next morning. So literally where the rubber hits the road is the world’s cities.” –Jeffrey Sachs, the Earth Institute, Columbia University, NY

“If you don’t have an urban dimension in your national planning for dealing with climate change, you cannot build resilience. Resilience will happen at community and local levels.” –Jan Corfee-Morlot, Head of the Environment and Development Unit at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

They go beyond climate action

Cities are working to tie in other important goals within the framework of climate action to better their citizens’ lives. There is a huge emphasis among city leaders that the actions they take are not only beneficial to the environment, but also promote other key efforts like social justice and economic prosperity. In doing so, they are reframing climate change as not only a great challenge, but also a great opportunity for societal improvement.

“The mayors are actually putting the social issues first, and fundamentally, mayors have to integrate the social, environmental, and the economic dimensions,” –Jan Corfee-Morlot

We’re trying to look at more than just reducing our greenhouse gas emissions; we’re trying to see how our climate change policies can be comprehensive and achieve other goals, particularly social equity goals.” –Mayor Libby Schaaf

Cities are the battleground. And it will be cities where the war against climate change will be fought, and it will be cities where the war against climate change will be won.” –Mayor George Heartwell of Grand Rapids, MI

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