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The global dialogue on climate change is largely structured around national governments — which are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But a network of city leaders have made the argument at the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP 27, in Sharm-el- Sheikh, Egypt, that they are better positioned to move toward climate action.
“At the end of the day, climate change is happening at the local level, it’s happening in your neighborhood and my neighborhood,” Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, who is vice chair of C40 Cities, an organization of 96 cities that account for 75% of global emissions, told Devex on the sidelines of COP 27. “We are as mayors on the front line in addressing that.”
The city leaders published a handbook during the conference “to identify the most impactful and inclusive actions to be implemented across sectors including energy, transport, buildings, waste, construction and urban planning.”
In the wake of the Paris Agreement, countries were tasked with crafting Nationally Determined Contribution plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But seven years later, no national governments have developed plans compatible with reducing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. But 62 cities in the C40 Cities have done so, according to the organization, with three-quarters of these cities reducing emissions faster than their respective national governments.
But the jury is still out on how effective cities are globally. A new analysis from Net Zero Tracker published this week warned against cities greenwashing their net-zero commitments by failing to align them with “robust criteria.” It found that only 12% of cities with populations of over 500,000, actually have a transition plan.
“Without a plan, a pledge is simply an aspiration without a means to achieve it,” the research consortium wrote.
In response, a spokesperson from C40 Cities said some of the information on Net Zero Tracker is “not complete or up-to-date” and that it sometimes takes a bit of digging and back-and-forth with a city to get a full picture of its plans, in some cases parts of which are not yet published.
Actions in Freetown, aspirations in Nairobi
Last year, Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, announced the appointment of Africa’s first chief heat officer, Eugenia Kargbo, in partnership with the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. Extreme heat is a “silent killer,” Aki-Sawyerr said, that particularly affects the informal sector. In the absence of land-use planning and building permitting, which is an issue of legislation between central governments and the city, she said, informal settlements have burgeoned, and housing is largely made of corrugated iron.
“You literally are living in an oven,” she said. And even when people are not in their homes, they are often out on the streets working as traders. Freetown is providing market shade covers with heat-resistant canopies on metal frames with solar lights beneath that protect market workers from the heat and the rain.
And cities are seeing influx of people from rural areas who once relied on subsistence farming or pastoralism, but with the erratic rainfall, this livelihood is no longer sustainable. Some 86 million people across sub-Saharan Africa could migrate within their own countries by 2050 due to the climate crisis.
“Indirectly, climate change is driving our population up; it’s putting more pressure on already strained infrastructure; it’s increasing deforestation, as people look for places to live, and literally cut down forests to do so,” she said.
During COP 27, the Global Cities Fund for Migrants and Refugees announced a $1.2 million commitment, with funding from IKEA Foundation, to support Casablanca, Dar es Salaam, eThekwini, Hargeisa, Nairobi, and Nyamagabe with financial and technical support to help migrants and displaced people affected by the climate crisis. This is in addition to grants from the council made to Accra, Arua, Beira, Johannesburg, and Monrovia.
Under Aki-Sawyerr’s leadership, Freetown has planted about 800,000 trees since 2020, employing youth and women to plant and also to have a “sense of ownership and protection” over the trees — which is important in a city where over 80% of cooking fuel is wood and coal, according to Aki-Sawyerr .
And on the transport side, the city plans to build a cable car, which she described as a “game changer” in its value to health in reducing pollution as well as connecting hillside informal settlements to the city’s economy.
Freetown and the mayor of Milan also have a partnership on fashion, hoping to address issues of migration.
“How do we work together to invest in alternatives in service, for example, that opens a market for one city’s youth population in another city,” she said.
Devex also spoke on the sidelines of COP 27 with newly elected Nairobi Governor Sakaja Arthur Johnson, who took on the role in August. He said there’s a “new generation of leaders who need to take over this climate discussion.” Messaging on climate, carbon removal, and air quality has been so high level that people don’t see how it relates to their lives. And city leaders are better able to direct resources and monitor progress, he said.
Still only a few months in office, Johnson has grand ambitions for the city, hoping it will be the first African city to reach net zero, which he expects to happen before 2050 — to serve as a “proof of concept” city.
“The countries that are least contributors won’t always be the least contributors — so catch them now,” he said. “With hindsight, if the U.S. and the West and all the developed countries knew what they know now, before they developed, how would they do it differently? I see a great opportunity for this shift in the conversation.”
He hopes to cover 30% of Nairobi’s land area in trees, by employing youth to plant and maintain them, encouraging motorcycles to transition to electric, and completely switching up the waste systems in the city. He has started giving rewards to people who report on others who illegally dump waste.
“We’re collecting more than 3,500 tons of waste every day. But it’s all being just dumped. Young people can be involved in biogas, making briquette, and recycling,” he said, adding that he also wants to measure the quality of air and have polluters pay for their emissions.
How receptive are national governments to the messaging around giving greater power to cities? It’s a mixed bag, Aki-Sawyerr said. Some national governments and cities are attending COP 27 as one delegation, for example, in other circumstances there’s more of a competitive vibe.
“We cannot afford to put politics above working together to address climate change. It’s too urgent, there’s too much at risk. There’s too much at stake,” she said.