How cities understand the fight against climate change — An assessment of local climate change plans

Introduction

Countries are not the only ones counting on strategies or plans to act against climate change. Some cities also have efforts to push climate action forward. As acknowledged in the climate change adaptation plan from the city of Barrie (Canada):

“Having a detailed Implementation Plan and access to a wide range of implementation approaches is essential to achieving an action. Planning for implementation improves the likelihood of effective adaptation, provides new opportunities for outreach and engagement, and fosters long-term sustainability of the action by integrating multiple streams of support.”

Hence, those cities with a plan are more likely to act and invest resources to act against climate change. However, (1) how do these cities understand the fight against climate change? And, (2) are these plans complete for action?

In order to answer these questions, this article briefly examines and compares the climate change plans of 11 cities marked on the map below[1]:

To avoid the overrepresentation of continents, a maximum of 3 cities by continent were selected. Even though it may seem like a small sample of cities, it is complicated to find urban plans for climate action — especially from those cities of the Global South. I even tried to reach some municipalities to expand my assessment, but I failed in increasing the number of plans for this assessment.

Once I had the sample of cities, I decided what I wanted to analyze. More concretely, I assessed the following parameters [2]:

1. Goals of the plan

2. Sectors and actions to achieve the goals

3. Criteria to select the actions

4. Public and cross-sectoral participation

Based on research, I considered that these parameters were vital to creating an overview of how cities understand this process.

Assessing the plans

This section provides a qualitative description of the different parameters to answer the first of the questions presented:

How do these cities understand the fight against climate change?

1. Goals of the plan

The goal of a plan is a significant source of information since all the chosen actions aim at reaching those established objectives. It was interesting to see that some cities mainly consider climate change mitigation — while leaving very little room to adaptation actions (it is the case of Paris, Barcelona, Wellington, and Yokohama), while others focus on adaptation to climate change (Barrie, Sydney, and Johannesburg), and the rest on both adaptation and mitigation (Chicago, Mexico City, Seoul, and Santiago).

Source: UN News, Moving towards 100% renewable power in Hawaii (with a little help from sheep).

2. Sectors and actions to achieve the goals

This section provides an overview of the main sectors present in the analyzed plans. Furthermore, it gives a better idea of what and how it is prioritized by each city, showing their approach to fight against climate change.

One main goal that all cities share, regardless of the focus of their plans, is the prioritization of public health and safety. Despite not being a concrete sector for the majority of the cities (except Barcelona, Barrie, Santiago, and Seoul), the rest include this sector in their plans either by reducing the CO2 emissions through energy efficiency (Barcelona, Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, Santiago, Seoul, Wellington, and Yokohama), including reduction and management of waste (Chicago, Santiago, Seoul, Wellington, Barcelona, and Mexico City), and smart mobility (Chicago, Mexico City, and Wellington), among other activities or by reducing climate change exposure through adaptation (in Barcelona, Chicago, Paris, Seoul, Sydney, Paris, and Yokohama), strengthening climate adaptive capacity (Barcelona, Barrie, Seoul, and Sydney) and disaster risk prevention (Barcelona, Mexico City, Seoul, Sydney, and Yokohama).

Source: Wikipedia Commons, State Public Health Laboratory in Exton Tests for COVID-19 (2020).

Connected to public health and safety, another sector that appears in all plans is transport and mobility. Although not all cities include them as a sector (this is the case of Barrie and Sydney), there are commonalities in all cities towards how transport and mobility should be designed and utilized for more sustainable development. More concretely, the cities want to make their mobility more resilient to climate risks avoiding disruptions, reduce traffic, increase the supply and use of public and green transportation (e.g., bikes and walking), and expand the supply and service of alternative fuels for vehicles.

Some cities also consider the protection of buildings and properties against climate change by minimizing risk exposure and strengthening infrastructure resilience (Barrie, Johannesburg, and Yokohama). Although most cities do not include it as a specific sector, some have them as an action in one of their sectors. For instance, Sydney proposes by 2030–2050 to identify high-risk areas for modification of infrastructure, facilities, and buildings.

As experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic and during natural hazards, the ability of a city to efficiently deliver services to residents can be threatened or be under pressure. In order to ensure that the needs of the community are met and any disruption to core services is minimized while giving special attention to those more vulnerable, some of these cities have included a sector-specific to community services with detailed actions (Barcelona and Barrie). In contrast, others have suggested measures integrated into other sectors (Chicago, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Paris, Santiago, Seoul, Sydney, Wellington, and Yokohama).

All the cities also include the efficient management of their natural resources and sustainable consumption and production in their plans. In this sense, water scarcity is a significant concern among all the cities, which explains why all the cities include efficient water and stormwater management in their plans. Given the tremendous amount of greenhouse gas emissions released and the need to increase the role of renewable sources, energy is also another topic with great emphasis by all the cities. Finally, the critical role of forests and green urban areas is considered in most of the plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase permeable soil, reduce the urban heat island effect, and increase the city’s attractiveness and biodiversity, among others.

Concerning the last sector, food [3] is a big priority for the cities analyzed. More concretely, in most of the plans, one can find specific sectors on food security (Barrie — with two sectors, and Johannesburg), food waste (Paris, Seoul, and Wellington), or food sovereignty (Barcelona, Mexico City, and Wellington). Other cities indirectly tackle food security by strengthening adaptation measures and increasing the efficiency of water management.

Another recurrent topic in these plans is the protection and preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems, found in some of the plans from the selected cities. This preservation takes different forms: from green roofs (in Barcelona, Barrie, Chicago, Paris, and Seoul) to the increase and rehabilitation of interurban green areas and existing forests and natural reserves (Mexico City, Santiago, Seoul, and Sydney).

3. Criteria to select the actions

Not all cities give much information on how the actions were prioritized and selected in their plans. Sometimes, one must go to external documents (the case of Barrie), and in other cases, the information is simply not that detailed (such as Paris, Seoul, Sydney, and Yokohama). They all mention that actions are finally selected by the project team of each city, based, most of the time, on multi-criteria analysis. The preliminary actions are based on previous workshops done to different parts of the society (e.g., academia, private companies, civilians, NGOs) by the local governments.

Among the most popular criteria used to select the final actions, one can find the assessments of benefits and costs of each of the actions, urgency, effectiveness of the action, and the influence of the action to other actions or other places to replicate it.

Other criteria that were not as mentioned as the previous which, at the same time, are equally important, are:

  • Acceptability: a lack of acceptability among the population can cause confrontation (such as Barcelona with the urban islands).
  • Funding sources: without funding, the project cannot be implemented
  • Capacity to implement the actions: it ensures the implementation of the action
  • Data collection: something very recurrent in the field of climate change adaptation is the lack of data. Considering this parameter at the time of selecting actions can enhance decision-making.

4. Public and cross-sectoral participation

Public and cross-sectoral participation is vital for capturing the needs of the society and making the society owners of the fight against climate change and of the shift towards more sustainable development.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/becker271/34220934181/in/photostream/

When coming up with preliminary actions, one can find all kinds of participants in the plans, especially from the public sector. The private sector, civilians, specialized organizations, universities, and civic leaders in climate change also played an important role. These are also involved in the success of some of the actions.

Some cities involve local, regional, and national levels in implementing specific actions, such as Santiago, which involves all these levels in energy governance and institutionality (page 122 of the respective plan).

Not all cities have allowed participation and participants in the same way, and not all cities have included the opinion of the public and the private sector (at least one city from the sample).

How do these cities understand the fight against climate change?

From this assessment, it can be concluded that the analyzed cities understand the fight against climate change as a process where both mitigation and adaptation need to take place. Mitigation is a must to enable sustainable economic development and adaptation to avoid or reduce the negative impacts from climate change that are to happen.

Although differently, all cities prioritize protecting the public health and safety of their cities, the buildings and properties, and the community services. Other sectors that were recurrent in most of the plans are green transport and mobility, efficient management of their natural resources and sustainable consumption and production, the protection and preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems, and, last but not least, food (waste, sovereignty, and security).

Benefits and costs of each of the actions, urgency, effectiveness, and the influence of the actions to other activities or other places to replicate it seem to be critical determinants when selecting the plan’s final actions. In comparison, others equally or more critically take a more secondary place, such as acceptability (political and social), capacity to implement each action, data, and funding.

All cities recognize the importance of the participation of all agents in society, although, in their plans, this participation takes place differently. While most cities take as many agents and sectors as possible, others rely more on the public sector and previously done studies.

Are these plans complete for action?

These plans result from a great effort by the municipalities and involved parties to reduce the negative impacts of climate change in their development and population. However, reading and comparing the plans, one can find that there is always scope for improvement supported by mutual learning.

One improvement that could be added to most of the plans is the inclusion of the so-called climate refugees and migrants. Surprisingly enough, only two cities talk about it: Barcelona and Johannesburg. The fact that the rest of the cities do not mention them could tell that they are not a priority for them, or they won’t be affected, or it is not their responsibility. One can observe this every day with the current refugee crisis.

Sustainable consumption and production have a crucial role in the mitigation of climate change. In the reviewed plans, sustainable consumption appears for energy, electricity, water, and natural resources. However, not much emphasis is given to responsible consumption of the market products. More concretely, only Barcelona, Paris, and Seoul talk about several projects to influence consumers’ decisions regarding buying products. For instance, the implementation of carbon footprint labels is based on the carbon cost of the production, economic incentives, education, and government support to citizens and businesses to buy or develop green products and recycle. All the cities should give more emphasis to overconsumption and green products since they have a tremendous ecological impact on our planet [4].

Another aspect that is lacking in many plans is the budget needed. Most of the time, the budget estimated for each action is missing, nor mention the budget’s source. While some cities include the financing strategy, most of them do not mention it at all. The only municipality that provides the total funding and the financing resources is Sydney, in a separate document called Operational Plan (https://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/strategies-action-plans/operational-plan). This increases transparency and reliability when implementing the plan.

Some plans should also specify an approximation of when each of the actions will start and for how long they will be implemented (such as Barcelona, Barrie, Paris, Santiago, or Sydney). For most of the plans and actions, this is not the case. Knowing this information helps identify the budget needs and how the plan could be implemented in the following years.

Conclusions

This article aimed to understand how cities see the fight against climate change through local action plans and if these plans are complete for action.

First, the analyzed cities understand the fight against climate change as a process where both mitigation and adaptation need to occur, prioritizing public health and safety through different ways — adapting building and properties, community services, and sustainable production and consumption. Not only do the prioritized actions need to fall under this criteria, but the actions need to be cost-effective with social benefits, urgent, effective, and replicable. Finally, for this fight to be practical, all the cities need the participation of all stakeholders in society.

Second, comparing across plans, one can conclude that most of the cities have factors to improve and to learn from other cities. Improving these plans can make them more effective in the implementation and strengthen commitment. For example, essential sectors should be included in the plans due to their importance (refugees and migrants, and sustainable consumption and production) and the estimated cost of the plans and time-span of the actions that are to be implemented.

Aknowledgements:

I would like to acknowledge Santiago Lema Burgos for his inputs and editorial work.

Footnotes:

[1] There were more cities originally selected, however, some of them had only drafts available online (such as Cape Town, South Africa) or are in process of being developed (such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).

[2] The original selection had up to 11 parameters, but these ones are enough to give answer to the questions proposed.

[3] Chicago: doesn’t mention it and Santiago mentions it in analysis but doesn’t include it in any action or sector. Johannesburg leaves it for the future (“Disruption to Food Security is regarded as potentially the most serious and worthy of attention in future updates”).

[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-16941-y

Links to the plans:

Barrie, Canada: https://www.barrie.ca/Living/Environment/Conservation/Pages/Climate-Change.aspx

Chicago, United States of America: https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/progs/env/climateaction.html

Mexico City, Mexico: https://www.sedema.cdmx.gob.mx/storage/app/media/programas/cambio-climatico/executive-summary-PACCM.pdf

Santiago, Chile: http://pactodealcaldes-la.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/SECAP-SANTIAGO-2020.pdf

Paris, France: https://cdn.paris.fr/paris/2020/11/23/257b26474ba3ba08ee02baa096f9c5dd.pdf

Barcelona, Spain: https://www.barcelona.cat/barcelona-pel-clima/sites/default/files/documents/plan_clima_juny_ok.pdf

Yokohama, Japan: https://www.city.yokohama.lg.jp/lang/overseas/climatechange/contents/zcy/actionplan.html

Seoul, South Korea: https://www.ccacoalition.org/en/resources/promise-seoul-taking-action-against-climate-change#:~:text=The%20Promise%20of%20Seoul%20is,to%20actively%20tackle%20climate%20change.&text=The%20Promise%20of%20Seoul%20is%20a%20goal%2Doriented%20policy%20with,set%20as%20progressive%20target%20years

Wellington, New Zealand: https://wellington.govt.nz/-/media/environment-and-sustainability/environment/files/te-atakura-first-zero-implentation-plan.pdf?la=en&hash=40CA389336FB7613E986AE6D878F6F4D2FA522A0

Sydney, Australia: https://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/strategies-action-plans/adapting-for-climate-change

Johannesburg, South Africa: https://www.joburg.org.za/Campaigns/Documents/2014%20Documents/climate%20change%20adaptation%20plan_city%20of%20joburg.pdf

My name is Cristina Bernal Aparicio and I write to raise awareness and share knowledge on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.