3 Climate Lessons American Mayors Can Learn From International Counterparts

Just this week, a coalition of over 85 mayors met at the United Nation’s Habitat III conference on cities in Ecuador. Their message was simple: cities and local governments are increasingly responsible for the costs and consequences of regional and global challenges—and therefore must be equipped with the required tools to meet these emerging demands.

While climate headlines are typically dominated by international and national policies and agreements, it is mayors and city leaders who are usually tasked with the implementation policies to reach climate targets and goals. To meet these, city leaders and mayors are having to quickly alter how they conceive of their responsibilities and must adapt to find new ways of effectively rising to these challenges.

In the United States, cities of all sizes already have climate action plans underway, and many have become global models of success. However, bold climate action internationally provides several insights that could be replicated in the United States.

1. Push for Federal-Local Partnerships

Infrastructure developments like mass transit for residents, energy efficient buildings, and transitions to clean energy like solar have contributed to major strides in urban sustainability. In addition, improved technology and production have allowed the price of renewable energy from solar and wind to decrease at an accelerating pace over the past decade. However, the startup costs of such actions are still sometimes out of reach for cash-strapped cities and local governments. This has prompted a new focus on improving avenues for climate finance at the local level.

At the UN conference in Ecuador, there was a universal focus on developing new methods of getting funds from banks and national governments to localities and cities, where the action is. Leaders stressed the need for policy makers to streamline the process, so that climate action can more efficiently be put into effect. Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, stressed the “need to be capable of implementing the agenda, to put in place practical and concrete programs that will affect the lives of thousands of citizens,” and to accomplish this, “Cities must have direct access to funds, direct access to financial institutions.”

2. Pursue Bold Policy Initiatives

Cities and states throughout the country are beginning to develop climate action plans to meet agreements like the COP 21 Paris accord, and the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. However, while these agreements represent significant climate progress, they simply do not go far enough to address the serious nature of the problem. This has prompted many mayors to push the boundaries of climate action.

In Oslo, city leaders are taking unprecedented action to slash greenhouse gas emissions by half in only four years. By focusing on transportation, banning private cars from the city’s downtown, building new bike lanes, and drafting 42 official measures to reduce emissions, the city is going further than any before it. As Glen Peters, senior researcher at Norway’s Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, put it “[o]ther cities might say, ‘Well, actually you can do this.’ And there are all these other benefits with local air pollution and quality of life. So then you may see a lot of cities following. But it’s really quite ambitious.”

3. Take Local Action Overlooked by National and International Leaders

Mayors no longer have to wait for federal action to develop and implement climate action plans with national and international implications. In Paris, for instance, Mayor Anne Hidalgo this year moved forward with a policy to ban private cars in designated areas of the city center. The goal is to increase use of public transportation, cut noise and air pollution, and decrease traffic in the city. Mayor Hidalgo is demonstrating that ambitious climate action, which may be impossible to navigate through federal bureaucracies, is possible in our cities.

“We mayors are more agile because our governance is more horizontal, we are closer to people, we can enforce best practices of other cities.” Mayor Hidalgo

The actions of mayors across the globe provide insight into how mayors here in the U.S. can think about tackling climate challenges. By developing new avenues to allocate funds from national to local governments, policy makers can empower community leaders with the tools to act efficiently and dynamically on climate. Through bold goals, mayors can surpass the national and international standards—and push climate action to new limits. And finally, by acting locally, mayors can enact policies that wouldn’t otherwise be implemented due to political or bureaucratic constraints.

Around the world mayors are stepping up and leading on climate. With international partnerships like the C40, Compact of Mayors, and ICLEI—international collaboration on climate solutions is becoming more obtainable for mayors throughout the US. By learning from international partners, mayors and municipal leaders are able to provide the best path to climate success in their communities.

Find out more about community climate leadership by joining Path to Positive Communities.

Stuart Wood is a writer at Path to Positive Communities and an adjunct professor. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University, where he focused on climate change, political communications and psychology. Email him at stuart@ecoamerica.org.

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