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Local climate change intiatives have impact, but need national government support

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A map showing evolving sea elevation, at the 2015 Paris climate conference, where countries agreed to ambitious emissions reductions Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Climate change is global, but a new study shows that many local initiatives can have an impact on reducing emissions. But these efforts may not be enough to counteract the low objectives set by national governments in the 2015 Paris agreement.


Researchers looked at emissions reduction pledges from some 6,000 regional and urban entities. These represent seven per cent of the world’s populations as well as a combined revenue of over 21 trillion US dollars.

The conclusion is that the pledges contribute to the Paris Agreement objectives, that is, to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. However the right kind of support is needed.

“The ambition level of these initiatives is right: they’re aiming for the right thing,” says Niklas Hohne of the New Climate Institute, part of the consortium that produced the study.

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The ambition is right, but can cities, regions and businesses meet their own promises?

“There I have a big question mark,” Hohne told RFI. They will not be implemented without help and support", she said.

“That can be done through government actions setting the right incentives. That can also be through public pressure… I’m sure that not all of these initiatives will pull through and really implement their goals. But I think we really need to  focus on helping them do what they promised.”

“Without national governments, you cannot get to the full scale of the action,” Simon Hansen told RFI. He is the director of the C40 climate leadership group, a collaboration of 96 mega-cities around the world (cities with over 3 million people) working on climate change.

C40’s own research shows that the efforts made by their cities could achieve about 40 per cent of the Paris Agreement goals. National policies need to support them, and not get in the way.

He gives the example of transportation: cities are increasingly committing to electrified bus systems. “But if then the national government decides to build a new coal-powered power plant, the electricity which will be driving these buses and vehicles will still be dirty, coming from fossil fuels. So it has to be a joint effort, otherwise there is a risk that all the good work driven by the city leadership will in some way be annulled by wrong decisions taken at the national level.”

Ambition loops

Cities, states and businesses in the United States were galvanised by the decision made by President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The study shows that their commitments are on track to contribute to half of the emissions reduction targets that the US agreed to.

There is a sense that these non-state actors can pressure national governments to take action.

“Politicians are nervous about getting too far ahead of businesses,” says Nigel Topping, the CEO of the We Mean Business consortium of nearly 500 businesses that have agreed to cut emissions.

He says there is an “ambition loop” in which governments take action once they feel supported by businesses and populations, and can be influenced as well.

“We always come back to this when we’re talking about climate change governance, it’s political will,” says Ian Cochran, senior advisor at the Institute for Climate Economics in Paris. “Are politicians in a situation to follow through on these commitments, and make challenging and difficult decisions? And then do they have the political support from their constituencies?”

He and the organisers and attendees of the Global Climate Action summit planned mid-September in San Francisco are hoping the answer is yes: that strong statements from businesses and sub-national entities will show governments around the world that there is support for climate action.