Expert Voices: Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC

How megacities are becoming central players in the fight against climate change

In November 2012, superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, claiming dozens of lives and causing billions in damages to the US economy. Lower Manhattan at night, otherwise a hub of around the clock activity, was dark, silent, and flooded. That image, reminiscent of a Hollywood disaster movie, was captured on the front page of Bloomberg Businessweek, which carried the poignant headline “It’s Global Warming, Stupid”. The corresponding article explained that no single extreme weather event could be attributed to climate change. But the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere was causing warming that was heating the oceans and putting weather “on steroids”, leading to more powerful and more frequent storms. Storms like Sandy.

Immediately after Sandy - and two years after Irene, another large and costly hurricane that hit the city - New York’s then Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the “Stronger and More Resilient New York” plan to curb the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and to better prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change.

Since then, and due in large part to this forward-thinking response to rebuilding, Michael Bloomberg was nominated as UN special envoy for cities and climate change. In this role, he has been tasked by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to galvanize city action ahead of the 2014 Climate Summit in New York in September and ahead of the 2015 climate change conference in Paris where governments have committed to enact a new, universal climate agreement. 

With Mike Bloomberg at the Johannesburg C40 meeting

New York is certainly not alone in recognizing the need to act on climate change. More than half the global population lives in urban areas, which produce around 70% of energy-related emissions. At the same time, many large cities are highly vulnerable to climate impacts such as rising sea levels and storm surges, given that they are located on or close to coastlines.

Numerous mayors of cities from Rio de Janeiro to Seoul to Johannesburg are acutely aware of this and have clear, practical plans to reduce emissions and increase urban resilience.

At the recent Mayors Summit of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group in Johannesburg, the C40 group published a report showing how the world’s megacities – roughly defined as cities with a total population of more than 10 million – are fast expanding efforts to curb climate change, such as implementing tough energy efficiency standards for buildings. The report shows that since 2011, the number of climate actions collectively taken has doubled to more than 8,000. And it highlighted the many areas in which mayors have full power to take climate action.

While in Johannesburg, I outlined areas in which there is even more room for climate action. For example, cities can set clean energy targets, and attract capital for investments by greening their finance. Cities with the best sustainability planning have a clear advantage in attracting capital. Lima in Peru spent less than $1 million to attain domestic and international credit ratings, which resulted in $90 million invested in a modernized transportation system. I also outlined how multilateral institutions such as the World Bank can help cities achieve their climate goals by mobilizing finance to community level projects.

At the C40 press conference in Johannesburg

National governments and institutions increasingly recognize the successes of cities in the climate arena and are increasingly turning to cities for solutions to this critical issue. In addition to C40, a number of agencies and organizations are doing important coordination work, for example ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability – and UN-HABITAT. And cities have a crucial role to play in ensuring that the 2015 universal climate change agreement currently under design meets the needs of billions of urban dwellers.

At the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw at the end of last year, we saw the first ever City Day. Cities will be an important part of the discussion at the upcoming June negotiations in Bonn, and well into the future discussions on effective climate action and responsible governance.

It is only fitting that the Secretary-General’s 2014 Climate Summit will take place in New York. This is the venue for world leaders to announce crucial increases in momentum for a strong climate agreement in 2015. And it will be the location where numerous other key players, including cities, can bolster momentum by making their own bold announcements.

As the UN’s special envoy for cities and climate change, Michael Bloomberg will play a key role helping to shape the contributions of cities. This will be for the sake of the city he governed, and for billions of people in major cities in the world who need resilience that protects from superstorms such as Sandy and empowerment to grasp the growing opportunities of the low-carbon economy.

See also examples of inspiring climate action which benefit the urban poor, showcased as part of the UNFCCC secretariat’s Momentum for Change initiative.