For the past days, the city of Edmonton in Canada hosted the first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientific conference focused on cities with the aim to establish a global research agenda that will lead to the first IPCC special report on cities and climate change to be published in 2028, under the framework of the Seventh Assessment Report (AR7). This conference was a landmark since it was the first to place cities in the center of the debate. Nevertheless, several questions were raised and we intend to address some of them here.
The main goal of the conference was to establish a global research agenda capable of setting a common ground among practitioners, politicians, and academics around the themes regarding cities and climate change. This is per se an audacious goal since scientists from different fields tend to discord about the main themes/challenges, whether it is technological innovations, social justice, global governance, institutions or none of these. Nonetheless, some themes were constantly debated in Edmonton: adaptation, climate change risks, the need for more accurate tools to measure mitigation efforts, technological innovations, green infrastructure, production and consumption, informality, transportation, co-benefits, natured-based solutions, smart cities, SDGs, youth participation and climate justice.
It is important to remember that the IPCC has been producing scientific data to inform the international community about climate change since 1988 and that the approach of IPCC publications and conferences has been the traditional intergovernmental/United Nations focused on national states as central actors. But since the late 1980s, cities have been gaining ground in the international arena in multiple agendas, such as human settlements, health, security and climate change. Therefore, the engaging of cities in the global governance of climate change is part of a bigger picture, a long process of inclusion of local actors in international relations. However, the IPCC recognition of cities as key actors and strategic locus for action is under construction since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5, 2014) leading to the Edmonton conference and possibly culminating with the special report to be released in 2028.
In this scenario, the climate agenda has emerged as the most pressing one for cities and has been boosted by transnational networks – another sign of the transformation of international relations since the end of Cold War – such as C40 (Cities Climate Leadership Group) and ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability). It seems that among many international agendas, cities have found their “local” in the climate change matters and this may be because localizing climate change in the city translates a problematic that may be too abstract for many. For example, feeling the increase in the heat islands effect in megacities is easy as well as it is to feel the impact of air pollution on people’s health due to a transportation fleet heavily based on fossil fuels. At the same time, cities are great sources of GHG emissions and municipal governments have the possibility to make policy choices that may have direct implications in mitigating and adapting to climate change, with the co-benefit of improving life quality. With this perspective, affirming that cities are key actors in the governance of climate change may appear to be obvious, but this affirmation needs to be problematized in order to better address their role in global climate change governance.
One of the literature gaps raised during the conference was regarding the implementation of the cities climate actions. That is to say that little is known about what was executed by most cities to mitigate their GHG emissions and to build resilient spaces – with the exception of some Northern European cities. This is a major problem because how can scientist inform low carbon development paths to cities if they do not have the data?
Subsequently, if one of the goals of the IPCC special report on cities and climate change is to provide scientific evidence to inform policy decision making, it should include the level of climate action implementation and provide tools to read and monitored it. This may seem like a simple task, but it is not, one because it is not possible to develop a universal tool, regional and local features should be taken into account when analyzing implementation. Nonetheless, part of the Political Science and International Relations literature (BULKELEY; BETSILL, 2013; CASTÁN BROTO; BULKELEY, 2013; DI GIULIO et al., 2017; MACEDO, 2017; PUPPIM DE OLIVEIRA, 2009; ROMERO-LANKAO et al., 2015; RYAN, 2015) has already addressed several of these inquires, providing some guidance to the decision-making process. Thus, the first step to bridge the gap among different sectors addressing climate change should be to acknowledge what has already been produced by each actor. Again, this may seem to be obvious, but one of the problems raised during the conference was how the practitioners overlooked the research already published by academics, especially from social science.
Therefore, what can we expect from now on is the proliferation of studies in many different areas about cities and climate change trying to fill the gaps in the literature raised during the conference, and we also expect that International Studies scholars start digging in deeper into this agenda.
Ultimately, what this informs in terms of International Relations? Are we there yet? The international community cannot ignore any more cities as relevant actors in the global climate governance. Despite a dramatic decline in global governance in the last two years – because of the rise of nationalism, the strengthening power of autocratic leaders and the increase of geopolitical rivalries (FRANCHINI et al., 2017) – the role of cities in low carbon development and adaptation to climate change is more relevant than ever. So, yes, we are there already, at a point that cities are recognized as relevant international actors. But on the other hand, there is still a long and tortuous path to be followed by cities to establish their role in global climate governance, and their relevance will be linked to the level of implementation of their international promises to fight climate change. Therefore, observing climate actions implementation by cities is crucial to communicate the new global research agenda and this should be the focus of future studies. The discourse of “cities as climate leaders/pioneers” has an expiration date if it does not find correspondence in reality. Therefore, if cities and also transnational cities networks do not start offering solid and scientific based results, the discourse of leadership and forerunners will lose its appeal.
Furthermore, in political terms, the movement of cities adopting intergovernmental proceedings – such as the IPCC – may direct to a slow pace of responses or even to immobilization. This can leave the mitigation and adaptation actions only in the rhetoric realm and hold back a possible low carbon development. By adopting a modus operandi similar to national states, cities may fall into the trap of assuming international commitments that are unfeasible and that may lead to inaction. The IPCC reports are valuable scientific repositories, but they do not directly lead to action, this is a political prerogative. Therefore, although IPCC reports and conferences guards an important scientific role, we need to go beyond and observe the climate actions put into practice by national and local governments as well as the private sector, in order to tackle witch path are we tracing: to a gradual low carbon development or to a disastrous intense carbon future.
Finally, the transformations in the dynamic of global governance require constant observation from the International Relations academia in order to read these new processes and their significance to the future of the Earth System, and to some extent to the relevance of our discipline to read contemporary processes.
We may not be there yet in terms of a low carbon development in most of the cities, but there is certainly a long and interesting path that will lead to the IPCC special report on cities and climate change. Although the consequences of climate change can be already felt in cities, the international community will have to wait almost a decade to access a comprehensive report on that. On our way, but not quite there yet.
BULKELEY, H.; BETSILL, M. M. Revisiting the urban politics of climate change. Environmental Politics, v. 22, n. 1, p. 136–154, 2013.
CASTÁN BROTO, V.; BULKELEY, H. A survey of urban climate change experiments in 100 cities. Global Environmental Change, v. 23, n. 1, 2013.
DI GIULIO, G. M. et al. Mainstreaming climate adaptation in the megacity of São Paulo, Brazil. Cities, n. September, p. 0–1, 2017.
FRANCHINI, M; VIOLA, E.; BARROS-PLATIAU, A. The Challenges of the Anthropocene: From International Environmental Politics to Global Governance. Ambiente & Sociedade, v. 20, n. 3, p. 177–202, 2017.
MACEDO, L. S. V. DE. Participação de cidades brasileiras na governança multinível das mudanças climáticas. Tese doutorado Programa de Pós-graduação em Ciência Ambiental. Universidade de São Paulo, 2017.
PUPPIM DE OLIVEIRA, J. A. The implementation of climate change related policies at the subnational level: An analysis of three countries. Habitat International, v. 33, n. 3, p. 253–259, 2009.
ROMERO-LANKAO, P. et al. Multilevel Governance and Institutional Capacity for Climate Change Responses in Latin American Cities. In: JOHNSON, C. A.; TOLY, N.; SCHROEDER, H. (Eds.). The urban climate challenge: rethinking the role of cities in global climate regime. New York: Routledge, 2015.
RYAN, D. From commitment to action: a literature review on climate policy implementation at city level. Climatic Change, p. 519–529, 2015.
About the author
Ana Carolina Mauad is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Brasília.