From Polluter to Champion: COP21 Shows Changing Views on Cities

While COP21 was a whirlwind of high-level events, meetings and panels, one thing stood out very clearly: There has been a major shift in how cities are viewed in terms of the environmental agenda.

Earlier this month, Cities Alliance participated in the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris. It was our first time attending a COP, and we were delighted to be a part of such a historic moment for climate change. We welcome the agreements reached at COP21 that will help cities increase their resilience to risks associated with climate change. 

While COP21 was a whirlwind of high-level events, meetings and panels, one thing stood out very clearly: There has been a major shift in how cities are viewed in terms of the environmental agenda. From the first Rio Conference until fairly recently, cities were seen as emitters of GHGs and polluters, and there was considerable resistance to including them in any action plan. 

Fast forward to COP21, and perceptions have changed dramatically. It was clear that cities are increasingly seen as champions of the environment and drivers of global change and efficiency, in no small part thanks to the strong advocacy by organisations including ICLEI and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). 

Cities were very visible everywhere in Paris. There was a dedicated Cities and Regions Day on 8 December, designed jointly by French President François Hollande and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and a major meeting of mayors on 5 December.

Mayors and local authorities participated in numerous panels and discussions alongside ministers and notable personalities including former US Vice President Al Gore, Governor of California Jerry Brown, Ségolène Royal, and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, chair of the R20 climate action non-profit who also delivered the Cities Day keynote address. 

Most significantly, the final Paris Agreement included language that specifically recognises non-party stakeholders and subregional groups – which include cities and local governments – as critical players in any effort to combat climate change. This recognition of cities is unprecedented, and long overdue.

For Cities Alliance, which has been promoting the role of cities globally for over 15 years, this shift towards viewing cities as solutions is very welcome indeed, and crucial as we look towards move towards implementing the post-2015 development agenda and Habitat III in Quito.

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