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At COP23, Decisive Local Action—Not Further Planning—Is Crucial

RMI’s new Carbon-Free City Handbook charts course for swift, bold decarbonization

This has been an exciting week, with Syria announcing that it will join the Paris agreement. Now every nation in the world is part of this historical global effort. Even though the U.S. has declared its intent to withdraw at the national level, non-federal actors—including states and cities—have announced their intention to keep U.S. leadership strong on this topic.

For the 23rd time since 1995, the world’s nations have come together for the Council of the Parties (COP)—this time for COP23 in Bonn, Germany—as part of the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. Over the course of these two weeks, national, regional, and local leaders from around the globe, the private sector, and NGOs and other stakeholders are discussing, negotiating, committing, and planning.

The ability to achieve unity of purpose, even amidst all the grand differences of our world, is truly inspiring. This unity is evident on the ground here in Bonn. People of every race, religion, and region of the world are here and rolling up their proverbial sleeves to get things done. The conversation has moved from whether we will work together to how we get this work done.

Shifting from Planning to Action

The standard approach has been for federal, regional, and local governments to spend years creating climate action plans and measuring a “baseline” for carbon comparison. But we can no longer afford that approach. Government agencies’ limited staff time and budgetary and other resources should be spent on making changes, not reports.

To wit, the de facto theme for this year’s COP is “further, faster ambition together.” But raw ambition is not enough; planning and commitment are not enough. Indeed, Damian Carrington, The Guardian’s environment editor, put it thusly in a November 5 op-ed: “Halting dangerous global warming means putting the landmark Paris agreement into practice” (emphasis ours).

We must pivot from ambitious goal setting and the “analysis paralysis” that too often comes with excessive evaluation and planning. We no longer have the time to wait years more for new and better climate action plans. We must undertake—now—the types of swift, bold actions that achieve rapid and deep carbon emissions reductions.

Many will ask, “How will we know how much we’ve reduced our carbon footprint without that analysis?” Measuring progress is very useful, but it is secondary to actually making progress. You do not need to measure the steps behind you when you arrive at your destination. We know the destination. We know how to start building thriving, low-carbon economies. Our first and most urgent priority right now should be getting to that destination, not measuring how far we’ve come from a carbon-intensive past.

Cities Poised to Lead

Cities, especially, are poised to lead on this front. They are nimble, with demonstrated appetite for action. Consider June 2017 earlier this year when, in the wake of the United States announcing its intent to withdraw from the Paris accord, more than 7,400 cities from around the world announced they would redouble their local efforts to combat climate change.

The opportunity for great collective impact—if the world’s cities do, in fact, take bold, swift action—is tremendous. By oft-cited numbers, cities occupy just 2 percent of the world’s landmass, yet house over 54 percent of the world’s population, consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy, and account for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions.

“Together, cities around the world can have a meaningful and substantial impact on one of the most pressing challenges—and opportunities—that we will face in our lifetime and for generations to come,” writes Gregor Robertson, mayor of the City of Vancouver (Canada).

A Handbook for Action

How can cities take action now? In advance of tomorrow’s Local & Regional Leaders Summit on November 12, today Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) releases The Carbon-Free City Handbook, available for free download at info.rmi.org/carbonfreecities. It includes 22 no-regrets, high-impact recommendations applicable to almost any city in the world and ready for implementation more or less immediately.

Crucially, the handbook goes beyond generalized recommendations and points to specific “action documents”—real policies, codes, action plans, request for proposals, etc.—that other cities have already implemented. It likewise highlights cities globally, their successes, and their progress on climate actions related to buildings, transportation and mobility, electricity, industry, waste, and more. If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” then The Carbon-Free City Handbook is a template for “imitating” successful city actions that can lead to rapid, deep decarbonization.

“The opportunity that we have now requires courage,” writes Councillor Jess Miller, deputy lord mayor for the City of Sydney (Australia) and deputy chair of the City’s Environment Committee, in an opening letter to the handbook. Yet, she adds, “Climate and sustainability are now mainstream issues that permeate every corner of our cities, from municipal operations to businesses and the economy to everyday life.”

“We can do it,” she concludes. “[The handbook’s] recommendations help show where to start and how to proceed.”

As the world shifts into week two of COP23, that’s what is needed most: a signpost for where to start and how to proceed. Because the time for further planning is over. It is time now for action, with the world’s cities leading the way.

To download your free copy of The Carbon-Free City Handbook and/or to access its action documents, recommended resources, and additional information, please visit info.rmi.org/carbonfreecities

Or contact Jacob Corvidae @ jcorvidae@rmi.org