Message to India from UN: empower city mayors to curb emissions

Global Compact of Mayors announced at New York climate meet to make cities sustainable; India out of the picture

By Aarthi Gunnupuri
Published: Sunday 28 September 2014


Making cities sustainable was one of the eight action areas identified at the UN climate summit in New York last week. Cities across the world contribute about 70 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions even as urban areas continue to expand, particularly in the global south. So, creating action-oriented plans for cities to reduce emissions can directly help rein in rising global temperatures.

At a press conference on the sidelines of the UN Climate Summit in New York, Global Environment Facility (GEF), the world’s largest public environmental fund, announced a further funding of $3 billion for climate change mitigation, of which 100 million will go towards its flagship “sustainable cities programme”.  “My one major take away from the climate summit is the increasing recognition in the role of the cities in sustainable development,” said Naoko Ishii, CEO and chairperson of GEF.

Ishii was joined by Andrew Steer, president of World Resource Institute (WRI), a think tank on global sustainability, and David Cadman, president of International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI).

“Cities offer, potentially, the biggest single part of the solution to climate change. We have been designing cities wrong and spreading them out too much,” said Cadman. He also said that on an average, cities lose 10 per cent of their income to congestion and 5 per cent to pollution.
Because of the emphasis on cities, local governments, and not just national leaders, were beneficiaries of the platform offered by the UN Climate Summit this year; particularly Mayors of various cities from around the world.

“Cities simply concentrate people, business and resource use. Therefore, mayors are in a very unique position to take an integrated approach to manage resource flows and their use for energy, water, buildings, transport and more,” said Ishii.

‘Mayors with targets perform better’
A special global Compact of Mayors was announced at the summit. The Compact helps Mayors set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and report emissions and reductions through a self-registration tool called the Carbonn registry.  

At a separate press conference on the day of the climate summit, the Mayors of Bonn, Istanbul and Johannesburg shared the dais to talk about the Compact of Mayors.

Parks Tau, Mayor of Johannesburg, said, “Research indicates that city Mayors with emission reduction targets report as many as three times emission reduction activities as compared to cities without targets.”

Cities like London, Copenhagen, Washington DC and Yokohama have committed to reduction of over 70 per cent emissions by 2015.

Delhi shows very low ambition
Not one of the densely populated, high-emission Indian cities, except Delhi, is part of the Compact. Besides, Delhi has chosen targets only on renewable energy, excluding emissions entirely. As per the Carbonn registry, the city aims to increase its use of renewable energy by 9 per cent by 2017.

It is no secret that the post of Mayor is largely ceremonial in India, with little political or functional autonomy. Mayoral appointments are political and tenures are too short for any substantial contribution from them.

At the press conference with GEF, WRI and ICLEI – all major supporters or contributors to the Compact of Mayors—this correspondent pointed out the lack of autonomy for Mayors in Indian cities and asked how this problem could affect India’s contribution to greenhouse gas reduction.

Prospects for India
“I agree with you the Mayors are not as powerful, but the facilities of councils exist and if they put it in their mind to do it, they can and they are making changes,” said Cadman, president of ICLEI.

Outside of the Mayors’ Compact, ICLEI is implementing programmes with local governments in India. Cadman said, “In Coimbatore, we put in solar power facilities and representatives of other local governments saw it and said ‘we can do this, it’s not rocket science’. I met with your Prime Minister, Mr [Narendra] Modi, and he shared how he got 15 per cent of energy coming from alternate sources in Gujarat [as its chief minister]. I think we can replicate that all across India.”

“We’ve worked with cities to build efficiency. We’ve lowered the levels of greenhouse gases in a number of cities in the region substantially,” he said. “In fact, we have an evaluation of what we’ve achieved in Indian cities and we wanted to make it public, but the Indian government was reluctant because it would undermine their negotiating power in UNFCC.

That said, he added, “I am always in favour of strengthening local governments; that is where the rubber hits the road. You have to do and move as your cities want you to. It begins to get more diffuse as it gets to state and national levels. If you want to make large leaps forward, work with your cities.”

Holger Dalkmann of WRI added, “We see good prospects for India with the new government’s announcement of 100 smart cities. In Bengaluru, again, there is no strong Mayor, but we are working on strong master plans with local commissioners. I am very positive of the Indian future and the future of its cities.”

Ishii of GEF briefly mentioned the increased desire of livability as another motivation for cities to help contribute directly to greenhouse gas reduction as this implies better public transport, increased green cover and other benefits for the residents.  Perhaps the citizens of cities like Mumbai that desperately need to be made more livable should ask their Mayors why they were not part of the milestone Global Mayors Compact at the UN Climate Summit this year.

Progress and challenges in the urban governance of climate change: results of a global survey

Developing indicators of urban climate resilience

Asian cities climate change resilience network (ACCCRN): responding to the urban climate challenge

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