For years, the conventional story of international climate change negotiation has focused on deadlocked talks between nations. The big questions, however, have always centered on cities and what actions they can take to cut greenhouse gas pollution.
This is a much more optimistic story. Mayors from Singapore to Buenos Aires are creating and implementing high-impact, replicable strategies that together could hold the key to addressing climate change.
“The city is almost like a living laboratory where you can test out different approaches,” Oslo Mayor Stian Berger Røsland said in a video filmed last year during the City Climate Leadership Awards. Sponsored by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of 63 global cities working toward climate change solutions, as well as engineering giant Siemens, the international competition is meant to raise awareness of the most effective local solutions for dealing with climate change impacts, in the hope that other cities will catch the adaptation bug.
Røsland had every reason to be excited. Oslo’s integrated waste management system was a hot contender in the first contest, held in London this past September. (San Francisco’s Zero Waste program eventually won the waste management category) But as Røsland’s collaborative outlook suggests, who wins or loses isn’t really the point. The competition is actually a means to facilitate greater cooperation and knowledge sharing between the world’s major municipal leaders on climate change action.
“I think that without the C40 network, it would be impossible for the cities to achieve this challenge,” says Guillermo Dietrich, head of transport for Buenos Aires.
The 2014 contest, which launched this week, will recognize policies, projects or initiatives that are the most environmentally impactful. In a nod to the realities of post-recession politics, the contest will also recognize “hidden champions” — high-performing urban projects achieved in spite of financial constraints.
Cities will compete in 10 categories: Urban transportation, solid waste management, finance and economic development, carbon measurement and planning, sustainable communities, green energy, adaptation and resilience, energy efficient built environment, air quality, and intelligent city infrastructure.
What makes the C40-Siemens partnership so effective is that the biggest benefits aren’t proprietary. There is no cost associated with knowledge sharing, and winning projects can go on to be replicated in cities across the world.
A project’s ability to “catch fire” and spread rapidly to other cities is one of six considerations that judges weigh. In 2014, entries will be judged for their “replicability and scalability,” meaning their capacity to “inspire others, or the potential to ease implementation in other cities and other regions.”
Even the prizes are geared toward popularizing ideas. Winning projects will be included in the Crystal exhibition, a sustainable cities initiative by Siemens in London that receives more than 100,000 visitors a year. In addition to global recognition for their projects, winners will have the opportunity to attend and share best practices with peers during the C40 & Siemens City Climate Leadership Awards conference, and will be featured in the formal annual project report.
Taking on climate change at the municipal level is no small or parochial challenge. A majority of the world’s population already lives in cities. By 2050, the proportion will increase to seven out of 10 people. If we could reduce the carbon footprint of those who live in cities, all of humanity’s output would shrink significantly.
Reducing the emissions associated with mobility is a huge part of the puzzle. One case in point is Bogota, Colombia, where 70 percent of commuters travel by diesel buses. The buses’ heavy exhausts are responsible for Bogota’s rate of sulphur dioxide pollution, one of the highest in Latin America, according to the Latin American Green City Index. To counteract this trend, the city is replacing diesel buses with hybrid and full electric systems and developing a fleet of electric taxis — an initiative that won the competition’s urban transportation award last year.
Other recognized innovations were Mexico City’s efforts to fight smog by banning private cars from certain narrow streets and Singapore’s transportation technologies, which last year won the intelligent city infrastructure award. Singapore’s GPS-enabled taxis and integrated public transportation system — along with its electronic road pricing system, which charges drivers for using priced roads at peak times — has helped it maintain one of the lowest congestion rates of a city its size anywhere in the world. Other cities, including New York, have looked to Singapore as a model for reducing traffic congestion.
“All cities, in terms of political construction, are very different, but the challenges are the same,” Siim Kallas, vice president of the European Commission for Mobility and Transport, said in a video during last year’s Climate Leadership Awards. “The exchange of experiences is productive. There is a lot of creative thinking everywhere.”
German transit planners have a nostrum that translates to “organization before electronics before concrete,” prioritizing less costly but politically difficult interventions over more expensive but less controversial ones. Indeed, policy changes can sometimes be more challenging than sticking with known solutions. Still, there are rewards in innovation, as the winners of Climate Leadership Awards well know.
To find out more about 2014 City Climate Leadership Awards, please click here.
Jonathan Geeting is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, where he writes about land use and public space politics. His work appears at Next City, This Old City and Keystone Politics.