Climate change: cities play key role

It’s officially springtime in Bonn, Germany, where governments are meeting to draft the United Nations climate change negotiations text anticipated to make the much-ballyhooed Paris Climate Agreement operational by the end of 2018. Reuters file photo

It’s officially springtime in Bonn, Germany, where governments are meeting to draft the United Nations climate change negotiations text anticipated to make the much-ballyhooed Paris Climate Agreement operational by the end of 2018.

But, there is a large, non-computational cloud hanging over the current round of Bonn negotiations. The question is whether there will be linguistic and textual parsing all too familiar to the cognoscenti of the decades-old UN climate negotiations as hot air hype or hopeful progress towards action?

Currently, there is one very significant hold-out to the Paris Agreement — the United States — which formally withdrew its support to the deal. Time is ticking for the remaining countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement to decide on implementation guidelines which can result in the execution of the pact. To be clear, though, the agreement is predicated on voluntary yet “ambitious” independent action by countries that have agreed to be parties.

At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP-23), held last November under the leadership of Fiji, nations agreed to accelerate and complete their work to put into place UN guidelines and officially termed it the Paris Agreement Work Programme (PAWP). However, they still need to secure agreement on the guidelines at the upcoming COP-24 in Katowice, Poland in December 2018.

The scope and nature of the Paris Agreement’s guidelines at COP-24 will be a determinant as to whether the UN-led global community is on track to achieve its goals: to limit the global temperature increase to well below 2°C, while pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.

Meanwhile, the UN has just launched its first ever “Annual Report on Climate Change: 2017.” After over two decades of climate change negotiations, it is interesting that the UN now has an annual report that borrows from the previous COP-23’s motto — “Further, Faster Together.” But exactly how much “further and faster” that remains to be seen, and the US withdrawal makes the word “together” seem somewhat of a non sequitur.

For countries like China and India, which are among the top three largest aggregate greenhouse gas emitting countries with major per capita and equity considerations, there are critically important linkages between climate change, urbanisation, pollution and poverty reduction that remain unaddressed.

Speaking at the April 27, 2018 Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation in Bonn, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa, warned that the impacts of climate change are “an incredible risk” to many cities throughout the world. She pointed out that: “2017 made this clear — it was nothing less than a climate disaster for many people throughout the world…But we can avoid the worst of these impacts if we act now to increase our action and investment towards climate change... cities are where the climate battle will be won or lost.”

In calling for urban action, Espinosa referenced the role of the Talanoa Dialogue — “an initiative on behalf of the Government of Fiji — as an international conversation to determine if we’re meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, and to increase global ambition towards them.”

While dialogues are the buzzwords of UN climate change negotiations, effectively scaling up strategic partnerships with timely results are looming challenges for poor and marginalised urban communities faced with coastal zone inundation and the rapid destruction of homes, livelihoods and fragile infrastructure.

In her speech, Espinosa lists momentum for action by citing the example of Los Angeles, which aims to significantly reduce its urban heat totals over 20 years by creating strong cool roofing requirements; cities throughout China embracing the Low Carbon City Initiative which aims to improve energy efficiency in their industry, construction and transportation sectors; cities such as Athens, Barcelona, and Paris, which have mapped their urban heat, but also their vulnerable populations so as to provide them with access to cooling centres. And “making buildings more efficient by using sustainable material, just as we’re seeing in many cities in India.”

But there is much more to be done in countries with some of the highest urban densities in the world in terms of expanding access to sustainable transportation, establishing access to clean energy markets for the poor, investing in climate-resilient infrastructure, and the inclusion of climate adaptation within sustainable urban planning.

The question for these countries is, whether they can drive the Paris Agreement in this round of talks towards the direction of linked action on urban climate resilience and curbing toxic levels of energy-related pollution.

With the US’ withdrawal from the Paris deal, will India and China take the lead in ensuring global guidelines that can help developing countries share knowledge and implement action on climate resilience and pollution reduction to benefit the lives of billions not represented in Bonn and Katowice talks?

(The writer is A US-based climate change expert)

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