It is usually repeated, as if it were a chant, that 55 percent of the world's population currently lives in cities and that this percentage will increase to 70 percent by 2050. Even if correct, this statement is usually used as a mere description of the phenomenon, without problematising the implications of the fact itself. In this sense, this reflective process would lead us to the idea that not only is the urban population growing, but also that this increment is concentrated in small fractions of national territories, which are under the administration of local governments. Thus, cities are increasing their demographic, economic, and political power, becoming relevant actors on the global scene.
Given this redefinition of the role local governments have internationally, cities are adopting a greater share of responsibility to address some of the major issues faced by modern societies, sharing more government functions with countries. The C40 World Mayors Summit, held in Buenos Aires this week, leads us to reflect on the role that cities have been fulfilling in regard to one of the greatest challenges in the history of humanity: global warming.
Since the moment the debate about “climate change” and “global warming” started to gain more momentum during the 1970s, countries have been the main actors to take the lead, especially through the United Nations. An example of this leading role has been the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (1988), the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the establishment of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and, more recently, the signing of the Paris Agreement (2015). In general terms, these have promoted different commitments assumed exclusively by national governments to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Nevertheless, the level of success of the climate actions the national governments have led is debatable. Not only has the production of CO2 not been reduced, but it also has been steadily increasing for the last several decades. Even the periods in which these emissions decreased (such as during the economic crisis of 2009 and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020) have been followed by strong increases in CO2 generation, reaching the current historic peaks of CO2 emissions. We thought that we would be better after both crises, but at least in terms of climate change, this has not been the case.
Indeed, the challenges posed by climate change require immediate actions, which national governments are not carrying out to the extent they are needed. However, for some decades now, local governments have been contributing more and more in this field, particularly since 2005, when the C20 (later renamed C40) was created. This new leading role is evidenced, for instance, by the fact that there have been even cases where cities have challenged national administrations that decided not to prioritise the climate agenda. A famous example of this phenomenon occurred in 2017 when former US president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, and the governments of the main cities of the country (such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) openly challenged this decision and decided to follow the goals of the agreement on their own.
Furthermore, while most countries do not have clear guidelines that indicate how they will move towards decarbonisation, several of the most important cities in the world have been creating and implementing concrete climate action plans or strategies for at least two decades. At the planning level, we can highlight the examples of Buenos Aires (2009 and 2020), Chicago (2008 and 2022), New York (2017), São Paulo (2021), or Tokyo (2019), among others. In terms of concrete action, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Sydney, Washington DC, and many other metropolises are already implementing some aggressive measures to be net-zero cities in the near future.
The fact that, for the last couple of decades, cities have been more consistent and applied than countries in the search for urban initiatives to mitigate and adapt to climate change is not by chance. Despite not having authority in international affairs, these actions have been promoted by multilateral organisations created by cities. This is the case of C40, which can be partly considered to be the result of the empowerment of large cities. This space for exchange and technical support has contributed to promote the inclusion of the climate issue in the agenda of various local governments. For example, for this year's meeting in Buenos Aires, the topics to be discussed and considered are a fair and inclusive pandemic recovery, the wellbeing of cities, and the need for climate finance.
As urban populations keep growing and local administrations get stronger economically and politically, will cities become even more relevant actors than countries? Will we see more conflicts between national governments and their internal local administrations? It remains to be seen how this phenomenon will evolve in the future. For now, although the importance that cities have gained in the international sphere cannot be denied, the reality is that countries continue to be the main and most important actors in the international arena. Therefore, the climate agenda of cities is not enough. The urgency of global warming requires immediate actions from both local and national governments, as well as new inter-jurisdictional governance structures. Both actors must act together and share the costs to face this problem. It is not too late yet.
By Joaquín Tomé* & Marco Aizen**
* Director of the Centre for Urban Economic Studies (CEEU), National University of San Martín (UNSAM)
** Researcher and consultant at CEEU