The prospect of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still alive, just, but the world remains ablaze. Antonio Guterres, the UN’s Secretary General, described this goal as being on “life support”. While there have been a series of important agreements, including on deforestation, Climate Action Tracker reports the planet is still heading for 2.4c of warming above pre-industrial levels.
Bristol on the world stage
Bristol has made a big contribution to COP26. I was there for ‘Finance Day’ and ‘Cities Day’. We also had Cabinet Member Councillor Nicola Beech and our Bristol MPs Darren Jones and Kerry McCarthy there. Meanwhile, our Black and Green Ambassadors, Roy Kareem and Olivia Sweeney, made headlines with their presentations on making the environmental movement more inclusive.
We were there in our own right as a city taking real action, three years on from the words of declaring an climate emergency. We were also there as part of a collective of cities — global networks of city mayors and leaders including C40 cities, ICLEI (International Local Governments for Sustainability), Eurocities, and the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission (UKCCIC).
On these various stages I have continued to carry a clear set of messages over the last fortnight.
First, that cities and their mayors should be put front and centre of any COP26 commitments. The battle against climate change will be won or lost in cities. Cities already account for three-quarters of global carbon emissions, and by 2050, 68% of people will live in urban areas. Bad urbanisation is a threat. But good urbanisation can plan for more efficient living that reduces carbon emissions, supports the recovery of wildlife, and builds more just and more inclusive societies.
Second, national governments, international organisations, and private finance must work together to enable mayors to access the scale of investment they to decarbonisation as their existing cities and the future of urbanisation.
Ensuring a just transition
Third, we need a just transition. I pointed out the triple hit of climate change: that people have been exploited hand in glove with the exploitation of the planet; that those people will then be hit first and hardest by the consequences of climate change; that those people are most at risk of being further disadvantaged by the economic restructuring we must go through if we are meet the 1.5c target. Failure to deliver a just transition will not only be a moral failure but could generate a political backlash as people lose hope and predatory, extremist political actors move to take advantage of the confusion.
The need for fairness, with social justice hand-in-hand with environmental justice, has proved essential in developing our Clean Air Zone plans. We have taken the time to get things right – including on hospital staff and visitor exemptions, and support for people and businesses to transition. The same is needed for our work tackling the twin challenges of the climate and ecological emergencies. We must be thorough because while time is in short supply, it is also true that we don’t have time to get this wrong.
Cities offer hope
I opened this blog with a sobering reality check, but I also want to share grounds for some hope.
First, COP26 did, for the first time, start talking about cities. Cities and local governments are mentioned in the final agreements. This is a source of hope because with the right kind of finance, cities can deliver irrespective of the ability or inability of national governments to agree targets that meet the scale of the challenge. And from London to Los Angeles, from Bristol to Freetown, that is what we have committed to do.
Second, COP26 has been talking about city finance. As part of UKCCIC we have identified £205 billion of decarbonisation opportunities and needs across the UK’s 12 biggest cities (representing 60% of the population and over half of the economy). Former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney worked up £130 trillion of private sector finance commitment under the Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero. We need to ensure that this and government announcements focus on timescales and places, and the regulatory change that will enable us to access funding and deliver projects.
Getting stuff done
This is all very welcome but I have concerns.
First, that large sums of money will be announced but they will not address the problem of cities’ limited ability to actually access the money. Second, that having seen the need for finance, governments, international organisations, and foundations will begin announcing pots of money in an uncoordinated way that will add to the financial complexity cities already face difficulty navigating.
We have some next steps. On my first at day at COP I shared the stage with Treasury Minister Helen Whately MP. I suggested the UKCCIC have a day with the Treasury where we map out the investment need and journey and agree a decarbonisation plan. That meeting is being arranged and could enable Bristol to plan and embark on its own £10 billion decarbonisation journey, while other Core Cities and London embark on theirs.
Next year, the Commonwealth Heads of Government will be having their biannual meeting. I suggested we undertake the same exercise with a collection of Commonwealth cities with the intention of announcing their journey at the gathering in Rwanda. 50% of the urbanisation up to 2050 will happen in the Commonwealth, so this presents a huge opportunity.
We have been raising issues of finance, social equity, and the need for an inclusive approach to climate action to raise the ambition of other cities and national government through our own ambitious policy and green business and industry strengths in Bristol. Speaking the same language, through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, can cut through the complexity of cities. The SDGs show the interdependency of to-do lists for places like Bristol, and the interconnected benefits of invested in cities across public health, economy, housing, and environment.
Actions, not just words
This year’s COP was particularly significant because it comes on the third anniversary of our declaration of a climate emergency.
We haven’t been sitting around, waiting for the international community. We delivered lots since the motion – including much work behind the scenes like City Leap procurement and building the case for investment. Energy and transport remain the two major carbon contributors in Bristol, and we are proud to have insulated some 70% of council homes to EPC level C standard. This is around double the figure for the city as a whole, and last week we announced a new scheme to ensure that private landlords improve energy efficiency in their properties.
We have been creating the conditions to enable other organisations to join us in delivering for Bristol.
COP26 has enabled us to build more momentum both in terms of what we are saying to government and business, and in increasing climate action by local engagement of citizens and businesses. We want every community in Bristol to make and take ownership of their own community climate action plan, and Hartcliffe and Lawrence Weston have gotten off to a great start. No two plans will be the same – and they shouldn’t be – and the Bristol Disability Equality Forum’s community climate action project shows just how we can leave nobody behind in making a just transition.
Since 2016, we have invested over £30 million into low-carbon energy projects, like heat networks, solar panels, electric vehicle charging, and energy efficiency. This programme is delivering England’s largest wind turbine in the north of the city, and, through City Funds, and Bristol’s first hydro-powered dam at the Feeder by St Annes.
Doing, not delaying
I want to finish with this. On Thursday Sadiq Khan told the UN Secretary General and other delegates that C40 had mobilised an international alliance of investors to deliver $1bn (£750m) for zero-emission buses in Latin America.
“In cities, we are the doers, in contrast to national governments who are the delayers, kicking the can down the road to 2040 or 2050,” he said. “National governments can talk a good game, but then refuse to put in place the plans, action or funding we desperately need. Unfortunately, we have seen more examples of this at COP26.”
Cities want to work in partnership with national government: only together can we have any chance of averting the climate emergency.