Polis and Climate Change Policy

Published on Domusweb

There is agreement. Delegates from 195 nations (all the internationally recognised States) have reached a binding agreement to limit global warming to less than 2° above pre-industrial levels.

Although not yet fully satisfactory (it does not commit to the principle of “decarbonisation”, i.e. the total renunciation of fossil fuels, and fails to chart out adaptation and resilience steps), the agreement signals a sea change.


As stated by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity. For the first time, every country in the world has pledged to curb emissions, strengthen resilience and join in common cause to take common climate action. This is a resounding success for multilateralism.” Aside from its specific content, what is truly remarkable about the agreement – as stressed by Ban Ki-moon – is that in the space of approximately 20 years the environmental issue has become the barycentre of a new political scenario that overrides players and State borders. Moreover, cities are at the root of this process and at the core of the new scenario.

Long before the famous Stern Review (2006) afforded them 75% of the blame for global CO2 emissions, some cities (often small and outlying) became hotbeds of a new approach to responsibility, searching for answers to climate change, overriding or pressing their respective central governments (their representatives in the vertical hierarchy) and forging cross-border (and horizontal, i.e. without superior government representatives) alliances.

In the late 1980s, long before the United Nations Climate Change Convention in Rio (the so-called 1992 Earth Summit), three major transnational city networks were formed: the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, a network of American and Canadian cities known as ICLEI (subsequently expanded to become the international Cities for Climate Protection CCP), the Climate Alliance of German, Austrian and Dutch cities and Energie-cités, a network of French, British and German cities. These city networks placed energy efficiency and emission control at the heart of a new need and political requirement.


The latest urban challenge will be judged on this capacity for government (or “carbon control”) and partially already reveals a crisis in national states, challenged by the global dimension of the issues but also locally by the cities’ greater flexibility and ability to act. Even the Kyoto Protocol was “only” signed by 37 countries, including the European Union. Although the first fundamental and binding agreement to reduce emissions, it took a full eight years to come into force. In the United States, where the Bush administration refused to sign it, the Mayor of Seattle Greg Nickels (who, in 2005, was coping with a sudden lack of snow that challenged the city’s water and energy systems), asserted the role of cities in addressing climate change and asked his peers to develop a horizontal agreement, the Climate Protection Agreement (adopted in Europe in 2009 as the Covenant of Mayors), which in just a few years was adhered to by 1000 cities.

Meanwhile, in or around 2005, other players were emerging on the climate control scene and, yet again, the city was the context that legitimised them and gave them roots. They are networks of private corporations, such as the important C40, Cities Climate Leadership Group, as too new active citizenship networks such as the Transition Towns movement. These initiatives expanded the issue of response to climate change, claiming social priority and strategic leadership from central government. Crucially, these networks interpret climate change and relate it to local issues, seeing mitigation and adaptation strategies as opportunities to grow and reposition themselves on the global stage. Recent urban changes in Malmo, Copenhagen, Hamburg and Lyon are exemplary of this.

The pioneering cities of the late 1980s’ networks tended to be small and medium-sized cities in the northern hemisphere but, by the turn of the first decade of the new millennium, many capital cities and metropolitan areas in the south of the globe were starting to rally round – and with them big international organizations such as the World Bank which, in 2009, hosted the Urban Research Symposium on Climate Change, and the United Nations UN-HABITAT programme, which in its 2011 annual report reflected on the urban implications of climate change.Luca6

The rest is recent history. Although, only yesterday Italy was, at national level, authorising fresh drilling close to the coastal resorts (prompting an institutional crisis between local and central governments), the new Convention of European Mayors has set 2050 as the limit for the transition to 100% renewable energy and an 80% reduction in climate-changing emissions.

As stated by the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, by welcoming the participants to the COP21, cities are not waiting for a solution: “we are working hard to make a solution possible.”

For those involved in architecture and the city, this means reiterating the fact that cities are not just a patient in need of a cure but patients searching for their own cure. As regards the future of politics, this scenario shows that the ecological-climate issue is one of the cruxes in the reconfiguration of an authority, notwithstanding nations and their institutions, still or once more rooted in the cities and in a new sense of citizenship.


Images courtesy of Luca Galofaro




About paesaggisensibili

Architect and senior fellow of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology of Toronto University, I'm a member of the board of directors of the Italian National Institute of Architecture (IN/ARCH) in Rome, where since 2003 I am in charge of the Institute Master Programs. My studies are rooted in the fields of architecture and philosophy of science with a special interest in biology and anthropology. Key words for my research are: Man, Space, Nature, Technique, Webness, Ecology, Relations, Interactions, Resources, Energy, Landscape, Footprint, Past and Future. My goal is to build critical understanding of the present to suggest useful strategies to build the future.

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  1. Pingback: Summary for the year 2015 #1 Threat and fear | Marcus Ampe's Space

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