Not long ago, belching buses were the blight of almost all big cities. Today, commuters are increasingly likely to hop on a quiet, clean electric bus.
“When we started speaking to manufacturers about electrifying bus fleets, they said it would be decades away,” says David Miller, director of international diplomacy for C40, a peer network of mayors dedicated to municipal action on climate change. “Now, there’s 66,000 running on the streets of C40 cities.” Electric buses, he says, are just one example of the way cities are accelerating progress by sharing practical and environmentally sustainable policy ideas.
If you believe the hype, cities – and the networks that represent them – are going to change the world. National governments talk, but cities are more able to act, say the superstar mayors that have sprung onto the world stage, brandishing their climate credentials.
Miller is one of them. As mayor of Toronto in 2003-10 he launched an ambitious plan to cut city-level greenhouse gas emissions. He recently published a book, ‘Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis.’ And his day job at C40 involves taking his fellow mayors’ audacious message to the world: cities can fill the void left by nation states in tackling global warming.
Networks of cities have proliferated in recent years, and by some estimates there are now around 200. Some, like the Global Covenant of Mayors, which includes 1000 cities, aim to be all-encompassing and exclusive. Others, such as Eurocities, have a specific focus.
C40, which represents 93 ‘megacities’ and smaller ‘innovator’ cities, has emerged as one of the highest profile and most ambitious. This is partly driven by generous funding from philanthropists such as Michael Bloomberg, who as mayor of New York City took over as C40 chair from Miller in 2010 and, now out of office, is the network’s biggest funder. Partly, it reflects the standing of high-profile spokespeople such as current chair, Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, who have found C40 an effective platform for championing their city’s (and their personal) brand.
There is some debate about whether C40 can deliver on its loftiest aspirations.
According to Miller, it can – and has been for some time. Way back in 2009, as the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) “was falling apart,” he recalls, “we were in Copenhagen in the square in front of City Hall, with mayors from all over the world speaking about what they’re actually doing.”
“That was the first time we were able to make it really clear to the world that the role of cities really mattered,” he says.
In adapting to climate change, cities – according to C40 – “get the job done.” The cities C40 represents have in many cases taken earlier and bolder action than the national governments they sit beneath.
“Most of the C40 cities by the end of this year will have a climate plan consistent with the 1.5 degree trajectory” agreed at the COP21 meeting in Paris in 2015, says Miller. “That’s not true for any countries outside of Europe, as far as I’m aware.”
City-level efforts to tackle climate change are having real effects, says Miller. He cites examples such as New York City’s retrofit laws which mandate that existing buildings reduce emissions of Greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 40% by 2030, Vancouver’s ruling that new buildings be net zero by 2030 and Los Angeles’ plan to decarbonize the electricity grid.
New data backs up this claim. A 2019 study of 377 large cities found a positive correlation between city networks and climate adaptation. Wealthier cities (unsurprisingly) have progressed further than their low-income peers in adopting climate policies. But even after taking income into account, city network membership tends to twin with bolder action.
Yet Anne Bach Nielsen, an academic at the University of Copenhagen whose doctorial thesis focused on municipal networks, cautions against assuming a causal effect. “The major global players would probably do many of these things already,” she says. For example, “Copenhagen has been at the forefront of the climate agenda for many years and, and C40 is just a way of showcasing this.”
Whether it is the cause or the effect, C40 positions itself as a norm-setting organisation. Deadline 2020, a roadmap for cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has grown into a comprehensive program of support for cities to develop and implement their own Climate Action Plans, says Ben Smith, director for energy and climate change consulting at Arup, a firm that co-produced the project with C40.
Peer-to-peer sharing is another selling point. Electric buses are a visible example, but many other municipal climate policies are replicated and reinterpreted throughout the network too. Academic literature on city networks notes a sameness in the policy responses to climate among major cities, but for the mayors in C40 this ability to adopt pre-tested off-the-shelf solutions is part of the appeal.
Bjorn Hugosson, Chief Climate Officer at the City of Stockholm, agrees that information-sharing is a key benefit. “I meet with policymakers in the cities and we exchange ideas: ‘do you have a climate budget in your city? How does it work? Is it effective or not?’ We learn from each other.”
Stockholm is not on the scale of some of the ‘megacities’ that make up the bulk of C40 but is eligible for membership by virtue of its forward-thinking climate agenda. “We’ve had Climate Action Plan since the mid-90s,” says Hugosson. “Our target is to be fossil-free and climate positive by 2040.”
Politics, while sometimes an obstacle, is an important driver too. Membership of C40 can help cities – and their mayors – build a green brand. Business lobbies, keen to reap the economic benefits, tend to be on board, too.
C40 is unashamedly exclusive, and is remarkably frank about the way mayors use the network to advance their domestic political agendas. “Cities use the networks strategically to promote themselves,” agrees Bach Nielsen.
C40 itself says that the prestige that comes with membership means cities compete in a ‘race to the top’ in a bid to be involved.
“In order to be a member, you don’t pay dues. You’re invited. You have to adhere to certain standards, including having a 1.5 degree compliant plan,” says Miller. “It’s about your actions, because you’re a leader. That’s subtle, but it’s really important.”
Cities that haven’t met requirements have been quietly asked to leave, he says.
For cities in low-income countries, gaining access to funding and investment may be a more important driver of their participation than political prestige. “There’s a lot of financial resources associated with membership,” says Bach Nielsen, “so it’s not very surprising that cities are interested in being part of these networks.”
Another benefit, particularly for lower-income cities, is access to external partnerships, Bach Nielsen says. Cities get indirect assistance from consultancies, such as Arup, that are themselves “very interested in being part of these networks because [the engagement] can eventually lead to more business.”
Milja Heikkinen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki who studies city networks, found that some cities see value in C40’s connection to Bloomberg Philanthropy, the eponymous foundation through which the billionaire ex-mayor channels much of C40’s funding.
Membership of C40, by raising the profile of a city, can help local politicians have a greater say in national conversations. “Governments listen to the city networks, because there’s so much power in those cities,” says Hugosson.
Eurocities, a network of 140 European cities, is particularly influential within the European Union, allowing city governments to leapfrog their national counterparts to influence EU legislation. This, in effect, can give them greater sway over their own national government, which typically has the primary responsibility for implementing EU policy.
C40, by playing a prominent role at global gatherings such as UN climate change negotiations, has become an international diplomatic actor in its own right, propelling some of its mayors – including Bloomberg (briefly a candidate for the 2020 Democrat presidential nomination), Jakarta’s former mayor, Joko Widodo (now President of Indonesia) and Buenos Aires’ former mayor, Mauricio Macri (later President of Argentina) – to global political stardom.
“C40 has primarily seen its role in the advocacy space,” says Arup’s Smith. “The kind of profile and prestige is something they’ve sought to bring, and they have brought.”
C40’s exclusivity can mean that mayors at the centre of the network tend to come from the most prominent Western metropolises, such as London, Paris and Los Angeles. Wealthier cities have dedicated climate departments and the resources to devote to international diplomacy, so they become the most visible actors and set the agenda.
But while five or six cities dominate the headlines, C40’s 94 cities are more diverse than most people assume, notes Smith. “C40 puts a lot of investment and effort into China,” for example, and is “trying to get more engagement and activity in India as well.”
Over the past four years, “we’ve really focused on supporting action in the global south, particularly around climate planning”, says Miller. Yet challenges remain. Stockholm’s Hugosson, who has collaborated on projects with several low-income cities, acknowledges the difficulty that poorly resourced local governments face in stepping “out of their everyday reality and into a broader international context.”
Both C40 and its wealthier city members hope their climate actions will trickle down. “When the mayors of the leading cities break ground on a new policy or idea or platform, it allows less well-resourced cities to do the same thing,” says Miller. Copenhagen see themselves as having an obligation to take bold climate action because of their wealth, says Bach Nielsen.
At 15 years old, C40 like most teenagers, is growing (not always smoothly) into new challenges. The network has gone through distinct phases of planning and profile raising. The next stage of growth, as it moves from commitment to action, may be the most difficult. Tracking real progress and holding cities to account will be crucial.
There is starting to be a more critical discussion about how to put meaningful targets against the city networks, notes Bach Nielsen. C40 may be better at measuring impact than many other city networks that are less well-resourced. But greenwashing remains an ever-present danger.
Most C40 members report their climate-related data through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), and Smith says he sees cities becoming more ambitious and reporting more actions from year-to-year. Yet there remains a limit to what cities, which are often somewhat constrained by national governments, can do.
For Miller, this next phase will be see both a deepening of action by leading cities and a broadening of engagement. “You will see over the next year, particularly in the run up to the next Conference of the Parties (COP) and the next G20 in England and Italy respectively, C40 quite systematically engaging cities that are of a smaller size and perhaps less prominent in this kind of work.”
“A lot of those cities want a C40 seal of approval,” he says.
Perhaps C40’s greatest strength is its nimbleness and flexibility in an age of ponderous and hulking international institutions. Soon after the pandemic began, a large group of mayors joined a hastily arranged Zoom call to discuss their cities’ responses, notes Smith. “Just to have that network and be able within a few days to mobilize and create a knowledge platform to share information… I thought was pretty amazing.”
C40 hopes the pandemic will serve as a catalyst for climate action, and that national governments will use some of their stimulus funds to bankroll cities’ climate plans. “We’re going to see over the next few months the mayors push incredibly strongly for a green and just recovery from Covid, building a coalition we call the Global Green New Deal,” says Miller.
“All of the actors need to ensure that this decade is about climate action, not just commitments,” he says. “It’s a very important moment, and a real inflection point – and it starts with that stimulus funding.”
“If we get that right there is a massive possibility to take the kind of ideas that C40 mayors have been implementing and spread them rapidly – globally – and get us back on track to globally halving emissions by 2030.”
Electric buses may be just the start.