The New Role of Cities

“The commentary for a long time has been ‘nations talk and cities act.’ We’ve been part of that dialogue too. That’s changing now. National governments are coming to organizations like ours and saying ‘help us, we get it.’ Cities are a vehicle and everyone should be getting in that vehicle and joining in for the ride.”

– Seth Schultz, director of research at C-40 Cities

My biggest takeaway from the Paris Conference is understanding the new role of non-state actors in spearheading climate action. During my time as an Urban Studies major in Yale-NUS, I have researched on urban resilience and how cities are getting ‘smarter’. This trip really consolidated the dominant role of cities in climate action, and how urban resilience and smart city technology must be formulated in tandem with environmental targets and standards.

Mayors, state representatives, non-governmental leaders were well represented at this years COP, having arrived early in the week. This set the tone for the rest of the negotiations as a strong signal of intent, highlighting that cities and non-state actors are at the forefront of climate action and crucial to achieving our climate goals. During the conference, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Bill McKibben and representatives from 350.org, an international organization set up to convince world leaders to reduce carbon emissions. In his speech, McKibben mentioned that cities move with a ‘nimbleness and speed’, and are ‘big enough to make a difference’. This is crucially what makes cities so important in taking the lead to create effective climate action and setting environmental standards. Often times, cookie-cutter federal or state-wide environmental policies are too broad and imposing; they do not address the needs and intricacies of individual cities. Ground-up environmental initiatives need not wait on national governments or international agreements. Cities need to take initiative to act, and often, they have political freedom to enact effective, long-lasting change.

The Paris Agreements marked the first time the majority of countries voluntarily submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). This groundswell of bottom-up activity shows how the nature of environmental action is changing to include more voices and bottom-up initiatives. Perhaps this is why the Paris Agreement fills us with hope and is widely considered a success – there was more buy-in this time, and the pressure from the failures of Copenhagen made this agreement virtually a must-happen.

In reaction to the newfound role of non-state actors, I began to reflect on the architecture of the United Nations. The UN is not a body which is truly representative of nations and their climate attitudes for it lacks representation of the many voices within national boundaries. This is why organizations such as ICLEI and C-40 are important, as they bring cities together to find interdisciplinary and participatory solutions to climate change through cooperation, sharing best practices and learning from each other. In order for the UN to effectively move forward, it needs to continue to work with these organizations and make efforts to capture the subnational movement into its indices.

This prominent and newfound role brings about increased expectations and scrutiny about how cities take the lead in climate action, and I look forward to how new policies will be implemented as a result of Paris 2015. I take special attention to this considering Singapore, my homeland, is uniquely both a nation and a city at the same time. Now that the agreement has been formalized, it is time to look beyond Paris and see how countries operationalize the standards they have set. The true test now begins, and I am looking forward to a status update during the Climate Action conference in Washington in May, 2016. What a time to be alive!

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