In Conversation: C40’s Johanna Partin leads discussion with USDN and the Cities of Copenhagen & Rio

At the recent annual meeting of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), this US-based group and C40 partner took the unprecedented step of including the C40 cities of Copenhagen and Rio. C40’s North America Regional Director, Johanna Partin, sat down with select participants to get their thoughts on the exchange.

Johanna Partin (C40): Convening cities for international conversations about climate solutions and sustainability is a role C40 plays everyday on behalf of its members. One of the areas of collaboration we’re fostering through the C40-USDN partnership is greater opportunity for in-person best practice sharing between the USDN network of North American cities and the global network of C40 Cities. What value did the Copenhagen and Rio perspectives add to a discussion that is usually focused on North America?

Julia Parzen (USDN Coordinator): Many North American cities can demonstrate progress on reducing GHG emissions, but still have a lot to learn from other global cities. While NYC has reduced emissions 19%, Toronto, SF, and Minneapolis 15%, Copenhagen has reduced GHG emissions to 28% below 2005 levels. This is why dozens of Urban Sustainability Directors Network members, 120 city sustainability directors in all, decided to seek ways to connect more with global cities through C40.

Photo From Memphis Meeting

From left to right: Julia Parzen, Johanna Partin, Rodrigo Rosa, Katherine Gajewski, Jørgen Abildgaard, Sadhu Johnston

Katherine Gajewski (USDN Co-Chair and Sustainability Director, City of Philadelphia): Not that long ago, many of us felt like we were taking great ideas from leading global cities but weren’t contributing in equal measure. Now, with more mature programs and a growing movement in place, we are pleased to find ways to bring our work into the international dialogue. Exchanges like the one we were able to have in at our recent annual meeting are an exciting way to foster relationships between global cities, and to better understand where the next learning and partnership opportunities might be.

Partin (C40): Copenhagen and Rio are clear global leaders in climate action and urban sustainability. What did you take away from the exchange with North American cities?

Jørgen Abildgaard (Executive Climate Project Director for the City of Copenhagen): It was a great pleasure for me to be in Memphis together with frontrunner cities in North America to learn more about specific plans and projects. We will all implement projects in the coming years through which, despite different starting points, we can learn from each other. Copenhagen has the goal to become carbon neutral by 2025. It is an ambitious plan requiring long-term actions, but it is realistic. In our process to 2025 we have to learn from other cities all over the globe and we want to use Copenhagen as a “green lab” for new solutions, together with the private sector, universities and other cities. There is a need for more international cooperation and knowledge sharing to foster change.

Rodrigo Rosa (Special Advisor to the Mayor of the City of Rio): It's very useful for policy makers to learn how cities implement sustainable policies and mobilize themselves. Many of the solutions from North American cities can be adaptable to South America and vice-versa. Collaboration is a premise of sustainability and that has to be done at the local, regional, national and global levels. USDN has done great work in designing and promoting green urban policies in cities in the U.S. and we are glad to understand that better.

Partin (C40): In what specific areas do you see the best opportunities for collaboration between North American cities and cities in other parts of the world?

Sadhu Johnston (USDN Co-Chair and Deputy City Manager, City of Vancouver): One key takeaway from the annual meeting last month is that every city faces significant challenges in achieving deep carbon reductions that will be necessary to meet 2050 targets. Many cities in North America have committed to an 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050, yet most are focused on achieving shorter-term carbon targets. Like many global cities, North American cities are finding that initial reductions can be achieved, but that the deeper reductions remain evasive. Approaches such as bus rapid transit in South American cities and district energy in European cities are being replicated in North American cities, yet many actions, such as the burning of garbage, which is common in Europe, are not well received in North American cities, demonstrating that solutions in different parts of the world will be different.

Parzen (USDN): Jørgen and Rodrigo added new ideas to discussions about this very issue of deep carbon reductions, as well as the topics of climate change adaptation and sustainable transportation. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Abildgaard (Copenhagen): It has taken decades to get where we are in Copenhagen; there are no quick fixes. We are where we are today because of dedicated political focus and support from the City’s leadership, investment in long-term solutions, a focus on quality of life, and good cooperation with stakeholders and citizens. These are approaches that every city must take, and we can all learn from each other’s innovations in these areas.

Rosa (Rio): Sustainable urban development is a challenge to all cities in the world. Partnering with C40 cities across regions will only make our work in our individual cities stronger and hasten our journey to a low carbon future and a sustainable way of living.

To learn more about the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, click here.