There are endless speeches. For decades, vague promises. Vast sums of money “unlocked”—but not directly invested—by governments. The abstractness of all this could make anyone who has been following the events at COP26 feel lightheaded.
It is helpful to consider cities to get a better idea of the changes that will be required in the near future. Although city mayors don’t have a formal role in the U.N. negotiations, at least a dozen of them came to Glasgow anyway, armed with emissions-cutting projects already underway, and goals for the next few years.
Oslo introduced its climate budget. This forced local lawmakers to show that spending was in compliance with emission targets. Oslo is now on track for reducing emissions by half compared to 1990. ParisBogota, Colombia London came with unprecedented programs—expanded during the pandemic—to take cars of their streets. Others who couldn’t make it to Glasgow have also shared concrete steps: four South African cities are rolling out the continent’s first zero-carbon building code, which will prevent millions of tons of emissions in the next few years. Seoul is installing By 2022, 1 GW solar power capacity.
“The single fastest way that national governments can make good on the promises they’ve made here at COP in the next few years is to devolve more power to city governments,” says Mark Watts, director of the C40 climate leadership group of 97 cities, sitting in a glass-walled hotel restaurant near the COP26 site. “Among political leaders, there’s no one that’s more science based in the action and the commitments.”
In 2016, the C40 cities committed to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C over preindustrial-era levels. Although public support has been overwhelming with large youth-led protests around the world, it is still being debated at COP26 by national governments.
“Governments that are closest to the people are best able to be responsive,” Austin mayor Steve AdlerTIME interviewed him over the phone Tuesday evening from Edinburgh. He was there for the night and before heading to Glasgow. “Our community is concerned about climate change and willing to really put our shoulder to our responsibilities. The national government is being pulled in lots of different ways.”
Adler was in Scotland to promote a transit plan partly funded through a property tax increase approved last year by voters. This scheme will bring light rail and electric buses into car-centric Austin. It is moving ahead of other cities in its transition to renewable energy. Having invested early in solar power, renewables now account for 46% of power on Austin’s municipal-owned electricity grid, compared to 21% nationwide. In October, Austin brought forward its net-zero emissions target from 2050 to 2040, with a “Strong emphasis” on cutting emissions by 2030.
Isolated pockets of ambition won’t add up to much if entire countries aren’t on board. Adler believes that cities have the potential to push for other areas. “Part of our responsibility in the United States is demonstrating that climate action is good for economies,” he says. Austin is seeing a surge in workers. The city’s population has increased by nearly 5% over the decade. Recently, large tech companies have opened their doors. Adler believes that Austin’s rise in clean energy plays an important role because it has helped to lower energy costs and provides nice opportunities. PR booster For companies. “One of the reasons [companies] are coming is because their workers want to live in a city like Austin that has those values on the environment,” says Adler. “So it’s become a really significant part of our economic development.”
Although they’re making progress, local governments still need to move faster. Accounting for an estimated 75% of emissions, there’s a lot of work to be done in cities to keep the 1.5°C target in reach. C40 recommends that cities double the use of public transit, retrofit millions and accelerate clean construction in the coming decade. If mayors can’t show they are acting in line with the 1.5°C goal, they will have their memberships of C40 revoked.
“Really where we’ve got to be at now, is ‘what’s your target for the next 12 months?’” Watts says. “And if you fail on any of them, understand why and correct it in the next year. The timeframes are going to get shorter and shorter.”
The first publication of this version was in Climate is everythingSubscribe to our newsletter. We’re currently sending a daily email from COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. You can sign up by clicking here