Cities are at the forefront of the climate crisis, but local and global partnerships provide scalable solutions.
Cities across the world are reeling from the effects of unprecedented, fatal heatwaves. Just this summer, more than 2,000 people died in Spain and Portugal from heat-related causes, accompanied by wildfires in the United Kingdom and France that have evicted thousands from their homes.
Extreme heat mortality, along with other significant climate resilience initiatives, was the topic of We Will Chicago’s latest Global Voices, Local Action series, which brings together international officials to discuss city-led approaches to key pillars of Chicago’s new citywide plan.
Councilor Kye Dudd of Bristol, cabinet member for climate and energy, and Distinguished Fellow Mauricio Rodas, former mayor of Quito, Ecuador, joined Chicago’s Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar for a discussion of environmental justice, public/private partnerships, and the role of cities in climate policy.
The cities represented by the panelists differ in terms of their characteristics, circumstances, and specific climate threats they face. But, as each panelist made clear, developing strategies that allow cities to scale action—both within their boundaries and across borders—will be essential for reducing emissions and building climate resilience. Specifically, they highlighted two types of scaling strategies: building partnerships and leveraging networks.
Cities and the Climate Crisis
Cities are at the vanguard of the climate crisis. They are often hotter than rural areas, as their dense concentrations of asphalt store heat to create what is called the “urban heat island effect.”
Cities are also major contributors to climate change. Even though per-capita emissions are often lower than in energy-intensive, car-oriented suburban and rural areas, the sheer amount of energy consumed in cities leads them to produce 60 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, despite only making up 2 percent of the Earth’s surface.
Bristol: Scaling Through Partnership
Bristol, a port city with a population of almost half a million residents, is a leading city on climate action in the United Kingdom. In 2004, it became the first city in the UK to develop a comprehensive climate strategy and in 2015, the European Commission named it a European Green Capital City. In 2018, Bristol became the first city in the UK to declare a climate emergency and set a goal for full decarbonization by 2030.
To achieve these ambitious climate goals, the city council has taken an approach focused on expanding its authority through meaningful collaboration with diverse stakeholders—including companies, charities, and trade unions. With decarbonization investments estimated to cost £6 billion, the city council created the City Leap Programme, producing a prospectus with £1 billion worth of investment projects.
To scale up decarbonization efforts, cities must seek partnerships both within their communities and globally.
Heat Resilience: Scaling Through Networks
Bristol serves as an example of city leadership and public/private partnerships to scale climate action. But scaling approaches to the climate crisis, especially heat resilience, can also take the form of international networks.
According to the Adrienne-Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), the average city stands to lose approximately 1.4 to 1.7 percent of GDP by 2050 to heat-related losses, with worst-off cities potentially losing 10.9 percent of GDP to heat by 2100. In the United States alone, Arsht-Rock estimates extreme heat will kill nearly 60,000 people annually by 2050.
In response, the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance (EHRA), founded by Arsht-Rock, has piloted the world’s first network of chief heat officers (CHOs), representing the cities of Miami; Athens; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Santiago; and Monterrey, Mexico.
Not only are CHOs concerned with coordinating short- and long-term cooling solutions, but also addressing inequities in the effects of extreme heat. Rodas shared that in the US, Hispanic residents spend an average of 42 days per year in temperatures of over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, while white residents face an average of 28 days.
Efforts to democratize access to climate resilience measures and ensure the inclusion of historically marginalized populations requires innovative, community-based solutions, which city governments are in the best position to harness.
In Freetown, for example, the CHO assists in the city’s ambitious goal to plant 1 million trees by 2022. The city has developed a TreeTracker app for residents to maintain and document newly planted trees through shared photos. Initiatives like this demonstrate how cities can engage residents in achieving climate goals and share results with members of the CHO network.
What can Chicago do?
Chicago’s set of climate goals and circumstances differ from the earlier examples in a number of significant ways. However, these cities’ efforts offer crucial lessons on which policies are critical to invest in.
Chicago’s start-up community can be meaningfully engaged to pursue creative, high-tech solutions. Developing partnerships with the private sector can stretch public dollars to invest in reducing emissions and resilient infrastructure.
Networks like Chief Heat Officers, in addition to larger networks like C40 Cities, share knowledge and organize city action behind climate goals. Bringing cities together to exchange best practices has fortified global coordination against climate change more than ever before.
As Tovar noted, “The alignment of all levels of government makes Chicago uniquely positioned to maximize on this moment.”
We Will Chicago’s draft framework can benefit not just by aligning with state and federal partners, but also by looking to Bristol, Freetown, and international networks for inspiration and collaboration. After all, climate change is a global issue that will require non-siloed, globally coordinated, and scalable solutions.