Policy brief | Cities’ Time to Shine in Climate Change Governance


Xira Ruiz Campillo, International Relations and Global History Department, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Cities have become an indispensable actor in the fight against climate change and there is a growing feeling that the great power to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions lies more with them than with national governments.[1] This is due to various circumstances, such as the fact that cities generate between 60 and 80% of energy consumption and up to 70%% of GHG emissions (mainly due to consumption of fossil sources).[2] In addition, the number of mega-cities (those with more than ten million inhabitants) and their population are growing. In this respect, some estimates indicate that two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050.[3]

Another circumstance that makes cities protagonists at the front and center in the fight against climate change is the close relationship they have with their citizens, being direct witnesses of the difficulties the general public faces on a daily basis, such as transportation and mobility problems, energy poverty or the growing air pollution that sometimes hinders outdoor activities.

Under these circumstances of being so proximate to local problems, cities have claimed more presence, space and protagonism in climate governance in recent years, where both the number of transnational climate networks and transportation networks at the national level in which cities participate have ostensibly increased; these networks serve to pool and share resources and to support many initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases and adapt to the consequences of climate change.

Among the best known transnational networks is ICLEI (created in 1990 and currently includes more than 1,750 local and regional governments from 100 countries), one of the first to support cities in climate action to reduce emissions, improve air quality and increase sustainability. The Climate Alliance is another pioneering network (also created in 1990 and currently with 1,768 members from 26 countries), whose overall objective is to reduce energy consumption and the use of transport to reduce pressure on the atmosphere.

Since 2005, other networks have appeared that have had a great impact on the inclusion of cities in climate governance: the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, in which 94 mega-cities from all over the world participate; or the Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy of the European Union (EU), which would go on to join the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy fostered by the United Nations in 2015 and which currently has more than 10,250 members representing 9.3% of the world’s population (although more than 73% are European cities of the Covenant of Mayors of the EU).

In addition to these transnational networks, there have been other initiatives at the national level, such as the Spanish Network of Cities for the Climate, the Chilean Network of Municipalities against Climate Change or its equivalent in Argentina.

While all of these initiatives have as its global purpose the fight against climate change and the necessary promotion of sustainability, each has specific objectives that can range from reducing GHGs to adapting to the consequences of climate change, or promoting urban policies that lead to more sustainable and resilient cities. Some networks, such as the Covenant of Mayors, require their members to commit to a 30% reduction in their emissions by 2030 and ask them for periodic monitoring reports; while other networks such as the ICLEI or C40 are characterized by the technical support they provide to their members and serve as a forum for exchanging ideas and experiences that cities have implemented locally.

Among the progress made by the members of the Covenant of Mayors, the most notable actions have been those aimed at making transportation and mobility more sustainable within cities, with the improvement of public transport, the pedestrianization of urban centers or the construction of bicycle lanes. Other actions focus on increasing the energy efficiency of municipal buildings (improving the insulation of roofs, windows, doors, opting for more efficient air conditioning units or installing biomass boilers for heating) and of the municipality itself (switching to low-consumption lamps for traffic lights and streetlights). Other types of actions are the creation of more green areas to increase CO2 absorption, information campaigns disseminated among citizens or the promotion of green public procurement of all services and products purchased by municipalities.

Some networks, such as the ICLEI, Climate Alliance or C40, offer information through conferences, seminars or webinars, and also training to develop adaptation plans, awareness campaigns, support for accessing climate funding and strategies to reduce waste management or improve the transportation network.

Assessing whether the actions and plans that have been implemented by cities that are part of one of these networks are sufficient to fight climate change is difficult. However, what seems to be clear is that this fight cannot be effective without any demonstrable effort at all levels (not only by international organizations, States and cities, but also by companies, NGOs and citizens). As observed in some monitoring reports, reducing GHG emissions either at the national or local level is not easy, especially GHG emissions stemming from energy use, which in some cases increase despite switching out the type of lighting due to the Jevons bounce effect or paradox.[4] In spite of this, making cities more sustainable by promoting public transportation, the expansion of green areas or better waste management not only has an impact on air quality, but also on the citizens’ well-being.[5] The participation of cities in this type of networks, congresses or seminars is therefore essential to share ideas, strategies and, ultimately, to serve as inspiration for action.

Box: Have we made a refined assessment of the value of our cities in climate action?

Written by Laura Gallardo, Principal Researcher, Center for Climate and Resilience Research (CR)2.

If the definition of a mega city is limited to the number of inhabitants, South America has few mega cities; medium-sized cities prevail and many have populations of less than 10 million. However, our cities – where more than 80% of the population lives – often suffer from poor air quality, energy poverty, and social and environmental inequity. Consequently, urban climate action becomes key to achieving the Paris Agreement and the sustainable development goals. Nevertheless, our climate policies have yet to adequately and precisely address this need and opportunity. In particular, urban governance needs to take into account the realities of the 21st century. In the case of Chile – where the urbanization rate has already reached nearly 90% and the paradigm of vertical decisions formulated within a narrow framework of costs and benefits has overwhelmed the institutions – it is imperative to better understand urban resilience in all its social and environmental complexity and to move towards a more polycentric governance. The Climate Change Framework Law should consider this.


[1] Gordon, D. & Johnson, C. (2017) “The orchestration of global urban climate governance: conducting power in the post-Paris climate regime”. Environmental Politics, Vol. 26 no. 4, 694-714.

[2] UN Habitat (2019) The Strategic Plan 2020-2023. A better quality of life for all in an urbanizing world. UN Habitat. https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/documents/2019-09/strategic_plan_2020-2023.pdf

[3] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), World Urbanization Prospects, 2014 revision, p. 1

[4] Ruiz Campillo, Xira (2020) “When fighting climate change leads to better cities: A study of actions implemented by 100 cities in Spain”. In: Leal Filho W., Nagy, G., Borga, M. Chávez, P., Magnuszewsk, A. (eds) Climate Change, Natural Hazards and Adaptation Option: Handling the impacts of a changing climate. Springer.

[5] Alcock, I., White, M., Wheeler, B., Fleming, L. and Depledge, M. (2014) Longitudinal Effects of Mental Health of Moving to Greener and Less Green Urban Areas. Environmental Science & Technology, 48, 1247-1255; De Vries, S., Verheij, R. (2003) Natural environments – healthy environments? An exploratory analysis of the relationship between greenspace and health. Environment and Planning, 35 (10); Maas, J., Verhij, R. (2009) Morbidity is related to a green living environment. Epidemiology & Community Health, 63 (12).