Cities at the Climate Summit

As the summit came to a close, it was clear that cities have played a big role in moving action on climate change forward in South Africa. In the three years since the last summit, city-led initiatives have kept the momentum up on climate change. But it is also clear that links between municipal and national efforts are not taken seriously, and that cities need to put more effort into presenting a unified front at these kinds of events.

Some of the most innovative national initiatives discussed at the summit follow directly in municipal footsteps:

A national South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas (SARVA) is in the works that will provide regional and local decision makers with the best available information on the impacts that climate change will have on their areas. Bringing the massive global climate models down to a scale that is usable to local decisions makers (downscaling) is an arduous task. The SARVA is an almost uncanny echo of the work that the city of Durban has been doing to produce a user friendly database of climate impacts to inform municipal decision making. Not all municipalities have Durban's resources though, so once the SARVA is complete it will deliver a key tool to many other municipalities.

The recently announced feed-in tariff for renewable energy also got a lot of attention at the conference. The announcement follows over a year of research in municipality of Nelson Mandela Bay (NMBM). A small-scale pilot project there has been testing the feasibility of decentralized generation and the appropriate level for a feed-in tariff to effectively promote renewable energy. South Africa has the world's cheapest electricity (half the price of Canada, it's closest competitor). It comes almost entirely from coal-fired plants, which makes ESKOM (the national electricity utility) one of the largest single ghg emitters in the world. In that context, getting the tariff right is crucial. The current feed-in tariff of 66 c/kWh has been criticized for being too low. National and international renewable energy companies, as well as the municipality, have pegged the appropriate level closer to R1 or R1.5 (12-19 cents CDN).

Unfortunately, key national and municipal figures didn't seem to take the links between municipal and national efforts seriously. Municipalities are key partners in creating and implementing national responses to climate change. But this was only grudgingly accepted by some at the summit. The sections of the conference statement dealing with municipalities were in fact remouved late in the week, and only re-included thanks to a last minute effort by municipal representatives. On the other hand, the presence of the South African Local Governments Association (SALGA) was very limited. Most of the key municipal contributions where made by individual municipal employees, and many complained that there was not adequate support for coordinated learning and lobbying by cities.

You see the same situation play out at international climate change negotiations. Little has been done to engage with the role that cities will play both in reducing emissions, and preventing and responding to climate related disasters. The onus to some extent lies with municipal associations like ICLEI, the C40 and SALGA to make sure that municipal concerns are adequately represented at national and international negotiations.

At the same time, national governments have to be ready to take cities seriously. If we are going to do this, national governments need to provide cities with adequate financial resources, support local capacity building, and help re-write regulations that fetter cities abilities to respond informatively to climate change. For their part, cities need to move past boosterist celebrations of one-off "green" projects and begin to make serious attempts to integrate Climate Change into they operate and make decisions. Both sides need to show that they take each other -- and the climate challenge -- seriously.


3 Responses to "Cities at the Climate Summit"

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Alex Aylett said... 10 March 2009 at 09:15

Thanks! The blog has been through some changes recently so I'm glad to hear that you like what you've been reading.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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