Thursday, November 13, 2014

IPCC Response Essay #8:Urban Community Collaborative

Jonathan Rosenbloom, Associate Professor of Law, Drake University Law School

In Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, IPCC Working Group II states:

Coordinated support from higher levels of governments, the private sector and civil society and horizontal learning through networks of cities and practitioners benefits urban adaptation (medium confidence based on medium agreement, medium evidence).[1]

Unfortunately, Working Group II (and the other Working Groups) provided little detail as to what it envisioned as “horizontal learning” or a “network of cities” and how they may benefit urban adaptation. Working Group II also omitted this statement from its Summary for Policymakers.

Because I interpret the statement as referring, in part, to self-coordinated collective action among urban communities throughout the world; and because I believe an urban community collaborative has the potential to be a powerful and realistic alternative in mitigating and adapting to climate change, this essay considers what an urban community collaborative could look like and the potential it holds. My hope is that the IPCC continues to increase its recognition of urban centers and the cumulative impact they may have when collaborating to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As part of this, the IPCC should include the statement above or a similar one pertaining to self-coordinated collective action among urban communities in its future reports and, at a minimum, discuss the possibilities and challenges of an urban community collaborative.

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report reiterates many facts that indicate the importance and relevance of urban areas in the debate on climate change, including continued population growth and continued increase in the amount of emissions originating from urban areas. The Report notes the need for cities to mitigate and adapt to climate changing conditions,[2] while also noting significant obstacles to achieving adaptation or mitigation, including a lack of local resources.[3]

From an urban governance perspective, bridging the gap between action on climate change and the making of day-to-day policies at the local level is as complex as it is critical to reducing GHG emissions. Bridging this gap includes overcoming deficiencies in financial and human capital, lack of information concerning the challenges and possible solutions, and other operational and legal obstacles. For example, there are likely few local governments that have the time or resources necessary to analyze the IPCC’s Report and to ponder adequate responses to it. Even if a local government had the time and resources, it would be inefficient for thousands of local governments to research and draft policies when many of those local governments are confronting similar challenges that can be addressed with similar solutions.

One way to help move from the Report to implementation at the local level is through an urban community collaborative in which local governments horizontally coordinate and agree to enact coordinated, legally-binding policies to reduce GHG emissions. These policies could go far beyond the climate action reports mentioned by the IPCC. They could include a diverse and detailed array of local functions ranging from local procurement policies to school lunch programs to zoning and building codes. Reviewing the many aspects of local governance that affect GHG emissions and reconsidering how to amend policies to lower emissions across functions is a gargantuan task. However, if that task is spread among the thousands of local governments, it may not only be more manageable to a single local government, but also it may be more efficient and help expedite the reduction of GHG emissions.

There are several groups collaborating around local governments that work to facilitate a reduction in GHG emissions, including U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement,[4] C-40 Cities Climate Leadership Group,[5] United Cities & Local Governments,[6] and ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability.[7] None of these, however, place binding obligations on local governments or have enforcement mechanisms. They are predominantly focused on voluntarily sharing best practices and information on climate change. While obviously helpful in moving cities forward, it is not surprising that the IPCC found that “[t]housands of Cities are undertaking climate action plans, but their aggregate impact on urban emissions is uncertain (robust evidence, high agreement).”[8]

While a successful urban community collaborative could take many forms, at a minimum, it would likely require local governments to have, 1) legal authority at the international, national and subnational levels to enter into an urban community collaborative, 2) recognition of an affirmative obligation to mitigate climate change that cannot be abrogated by higher levels of authority (international, national, and subnational), and 3) the political will to set binding obligations and to enforce standards to reduce free-riding and minimize leakage.

There are no doubt legal, political, and logistical challenges to each of these three (not the least of which involves national sovereignty and legal supremacy). And, I understand the significance of the matching principle and the virtues of having an international body address a global issue such as climate change. But when the international community is unable to act and if there is a willingness among local governments to act, why not allow them to do so? Even if the international community is able to act, would it be bad if both cities and nations were working to lower GHG emissions and climate change impacts?

On the one hand, urban areas, as large global emitters that may be fractured and divided, represent a massive tragedy of the commons collective action problem. On the other hand, they represent an enormous opportunity to self-coordinate[9] and sustainably manage their GHG emissions. A collaborative of only the twenty largest cities by population, for example, would represent more people than any other country, except China, India, and the U.S.

As the IPCC notes there are numerous local governments individually taking steps to mitigate climate change. It is not enough for the international, national, and subnational governments to verbally (and at times, financially) support local efforts. They need to provide local governments with the legal authority to collaborate and to multi-jurisdictionally regulate climate change. Without some type of sharing of resources and coordinated efforts, it seems too large of a task to ask thousands of urban areas to translate the IPCC’s Report into local action. While not all cities are willing or prepared to address climate change, those that are represent an untapped opportunity to reduce GHG emissions. The international community should make it a priority for these cities to horizontally coordinate to sustainably manage the climate change challenges they are facing.



[1] IPCC Working Group II, Chapter 8. Urban Areas, in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability 5 (2014).

[2] Id. at 3 (“[a]ction in urban centres is essential to successful global climate change adaptation”); IPCC WGIII AR5 Chapter 4 (noting the importance of “bottom-up approaches, engaging participation of diverse countries and actors, creating procedurally equitable forms of decentralization”).

[3] IPCC WGII AR5 Chapter 8, p. 4-6.

[4] U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, U.S. Conference of Mayors, http://www.usmayors.org/climateprotection/agreement.htm (last visited Oct. 20, 2014).

[5] C40, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Grp., http://www.c40.org/ (last visited Oct. 20, 2014).

[6] United Cities and Local Governments, UCLG:  The Global Network of Cities, Local and Regional Gov’ts, http://www.uclg.org/en/organisation/about (last visited Oct. 20, 2014).

[7] Sustainable City | ICLEI Global, ICLEI:  Local Govts for Sustainability, http://www.iclei.org/our-activities/our-agendas/sustainable-city.html (last visited Oct. 20, 2014).

[8] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change: Summary for Policymakers 7 (2014) available at http://report.mitigation2014.org/spm/ipcc_wg3_ar5_summary-for-policymakers_approved.pdf.

[9] See Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990).

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