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 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