What are COPs and why do they matter for local climate action?
Since 1995, the United Nations (UN) has held yearly meetings on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to assess international progress made on climate change. These meetings are attended by the Parties of the UNFCCC - the countries who ratified the convention - hence their name: Conference of the Parties, or COP. These meetings have resulted in historic, legally-binding international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015) committing parties to obligations towards reducing their fossil fuel emissions and towards pathways to climate action.
Municipal representatives, such as mayors and representative bodies like ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), also attend these conferences to highlight the role of cities in the transition to a more sustainable future. Though it is up to the national bodies to ratify agreements made at COPs, a large portion of any agreements’ implementation will fall naturally upon nation’s cities where populations and emissions are most concentrated. Understanding the role of cities in fighting climate change is crucial to creating robust climate action plans that will be successful in reaching a nation’s climate targets.
Martin Damphousse, the Mayor of Varennes, QC, attended COP27 representing the Union of Municipalities of Quebec (UMQ). In an interview Climate Reality Project Canada conducted with Damphousse, he highlights that “Les citoyens et les municipalités sont les premiers à vivre et écoper de conséquences des événements climatiques extrêmes qui demeurent plusieurs mois et années après l’incident [Citizens and municipalities are the first to experience and deal with the consequences of extreme climate events that can remain for months and years after the incident],” making municipalities crucial voices in sharing solutions and lived experiences across the world stage.
In Canada, cities make up about half of the country's emissions through sectors such as transportation, buildings, and waste management. Canada is also home to over 8,000 species, 24% of the world’s boreal forests, 25% of the world’s temperate forests, 25% of the world’s wetlands, and the third-largest area of glaciers in the world. With the now-completed COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh and the upcoming Biodiversity COP15 in Montreal, we are seeing an increasing emphasis and acknowledgement on the role of cities in enacting climate action and conservation practices. Decisions made at both of these conferences will influence how much support is available for cities to transition into resilient communities.
So what happened at COP27?
The 2015 Paris Agreement laid the groundwork for integrating discourse on sustainable urban development and cities within the COP spaces thanks to Parties’ commitments to multi-level climate action between levels of governance on climate. Since then, the Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) of parties related to urban content have increased from 69% to 84%, signaling the need to discuss how national governments can build strong pathways forward to enable accelerated subnational climate action.
At COP27, the first-ever ministerial meeting on urbanization and climate change occurred, bringing together representatives of local and regional governments, ministers of housing of urban development, of environment and of climate change, as well as non-party and non-state experts in the field to discuss frameworks that support climate action at the local level. The meeting focused on housing and urban development, discussions on multi-level action and reaffirming Paris Agreement commitments, and the launch of the Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation (SURGe) Initiative.
The SURGe Initiative was developed in collaboration with UN-Habitat, and facilitated by ICLEI, in addition to over 100 members of the Global SURGe Alliance. The initiative aims to promote the acceleration of local and urban climate action by providing a framework addressing five main barriers - multi-level governance, finance, local capacity, access to technology and innovation, and equity - and shaping solutions around five tracks: Buildings and Housing, Urban Energy, Urban Waste and Consumption, Urban Mobility and Urban Water. Integrating the five barriers with the five tracks, the SURGe Initiative creates a space to achieve the Paris Climate Goals and Sustainable Development Goals alike by 2030.
With the introduction of discussion of urban sustainability at COP27, the World Economic Forum launched their Net Zero Carbon Cities (NZCC) Toolbox. Recognizing that local solutions to reach net zero exist but that the problems lie within adoption and scale, the NZCC attempts to share and showcase these solutions from over 300 case studies across the world to better facilitate cross-city learning and application of initiatives to lower emissions, advance economic development, and improve human health.
Until COP27 and the introduction of the SURGe Initiative, urban issues had never before been so explicitly brought forward into the negotiation space. The existence of this initiative provides global acknowledgement of the important role of cities in tackling the climate crisis, and allows for annual guaranteed space during COPs to discuss the efforts on building resilient urban systems and bold local climate action. Emphasis on the need for multi-level action, where all levels of government within a nation work together on an issue like climate change, has been particularly highlighted during COP27 to enable local governments to continue acting on climate targets without limits of capacity or finance.
While Damphousse is encouraged by “les municipalités [qui] soient de plus en plus reconnues comme des partenaires incontournables dans l’atteinte des cibles nationales et internationales en matière climatique [municipalities that are more and more recognized as essential partners in achieving national and international climate targets],” he still urges the fact that “les gouvernements fédéral, provincial et de proximité se doivent plus que jamais de collaborer et de faire de la lutte et de l’adaptation une priorité politique [federal, provincial and local governments need to work together more than ever to make climate action and adaptation a policy priority].”
What’s at stake at COP15?
Cities act as a convergent space between dense urban populations and surrounding natural ecosystems. As urbanization continues to grow, critical ecosystems that foster biodiversity are at risk - contributing to the overall global biodiversity crisis.
Some of the main threats to biodiversity include habitat loss and fragmentation, and pollution of air, water and soils that come from the development of urban environments and infrastructure. Local leaders have the power to protect such ecosystems and enhance their region’s biodiversity by incorporating natural solutions - like increasing tree canopy and expanding and bolstering green spaces - as well as better urban planning that protects essential habitats and ecosystem health. Damphousse notes that “[Les municipalités] peuvent également agir pour adapter le territoire et minimiser les conséquences des événements climatiques extrêmes, notamment en matière d’infrastructures [Municipalities can also act to adapt territories and minimize associated consequences of extreme climate events, particularly in terms of infrastructure].” By understanding the power of cities as potential cultivators or destructors of nature, citizens can urge their elected officials to use their power to prevent any furthering of the biodiversity crisis.
The main topic of discussion at COP15 will be the consideration of the new 10-year Global Biodiversity Framework that outlines 21 targets for 2030 in order to reach the goal of ‘living in harmony with nature’ by 2050. Some targets like land and sea use planning, reducing pollution, and increasing access to blue and green spaces, directly implicate urban environments and necessarily require alignment by local governments for the targets to be reached.
With the Biodiversity COP15 coming on the tails of COP27, there will certainly be echoes of the themes and discussions from COP27 in Montreal. Multi-level action and push for greater local level participation will be present at COP15 as well, with a brand new Pavilion focusing exclusively on subnational and local government actions and opportunities related to biodiversity. Within this Pavilion, the 7th Summit for Subnational Governments & Cities will take place and offer time for leaders to share their initiatives and solutions, and come up with other meaningful actions or declarations.
The Climate Reality Project Canada’s team has been busy distilling the information from these COPs to be shared in posts such as this one, or our most recent policy bulletin, and the Climate Dialogues (for both COP27 and COP15). Our aim is to reduce the opacity of these negotiations through discussions, debrief sessions and articles programmed throughout the COP — ultimately sharing insights into these high-level, international negotiations that can be used to push for local ambition and bold climate action.