Do cities really hold the key to solving the climate challenge?

UEP researchers participated in two recent Special Issues which explore the role of cities in tackling climate change.

Climate change could be solved, if mayors ruled the world, claims Benjamin R. Barber in his book from 2014. And he is not alone. UN Climate chief, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Rockefeller Foundation and many others promote cities as the key actors when it comes to tackling climate change. The role of cities in climate governance has been intensely discussed in the last two decades.

Cities have been pinpointed as major culprits in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. They are also facing many of the likely impacts of climate change. The academic literature on the topic has soared simultaneously as cities have organized themselves and started collectively tackle climate change related challenges. As of now, little emphasis has been placed on analyzing exactly what the impact of all this activity is. How much of a difference is it making?

Two recent Special Issues that UEP researchers have been involved in explore these questions, one in Journal of Environmental Planning and Management and other in Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, edited by Jeroen van der Heijden, Marc Wolfram, James Patterson and Sirkku Juhola. The SIs are a result of the INOGOV workshop titled “Innovative urban governance for mitigation and adaptation: Mapping, exploring and interrogating”, organized by Prof van der Heijden in Amsterdam in 2016.

The special section: Advancing the role of cities in climate governance – promise, limits, politics brings together an empirical collection of papers to challenge the notion of cities as agents and sites of change for these global grand challenges. While cities actively engage with one another through global networks to set goals for climate targets, internal and local political dynamics may in fact run counter to these aspirations, and challenge the local implementation of global political targets. The day to day politics and management in cities may indeed run counter to international targets. Cities are often the key actors to get things moving but they also rely on state and civil society support, which is not always guaranteed.

The Learning in urban climate governance: concepts, key issues and challenges SI sheds light on the crucial issue of social learning when it comes to urban climate governance. The inclusion of multiple actors and high expectations results in complex governance arrangements and new forms of experimentation. But it is not clear, what is being learned and improved from these processes. The SI sketches out a typology to understand what governance learning in the context of urban climate decision-making might mean. At the heart of it is the recognition that there may well be some forms of learning that are more enabling for transformative changes than other types of learning.

UEP researcher Milja Heikkinen and colleagues in their paper in the SI pose the question of how transformative cities actually are. Based on the analysis of climate change mitigation and adaptation documents from 12 C40 member cities, the authors concluded that cities seem to aim reaching sustainability without fundamental transformation. The cities also tend to limit their ambitions in the local level, which may contradict with the idea of global leadership of the change. This especially relates to the questions of responsibility sharing between Global South and Global North, as well as connections between climate change and e.g. international trade.

In summary, these two SIs widen our picture of the role of cities in solving climate challenge. They also remind that while cities are indeed promising actors, it is not wise to concentrate too much on only one actor group. After all, complex relations between different actors and levels of governance, and we cannot ignore them when tackling a wicked problem such as climate change.

See more about the special issues here or through the links above:

Heikkinen, M., Ylä-Anttila, T., & Juhola, S. (2019). Incremental, reformistic or transformational: what kind of change do C40 cities advocate to deal with climate change?. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 21(1), 90-103. (For supplement material, please contact the corresponding author, the link in the article is not working.)

van der Heijden, J., Patterson, J., Juhola, S., & Wolfram, M. (2018). Advancing the role of cities in climate governance–promise, limits, politics. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.

Wolfram, M., van der Heijden, J., Juhola, S., & Patterson, J. (2019). Learning in urban climate governance: concepts, key issues and challenges. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 21(1), 1-15.

The research of Milja Heikkinen was founded by Tiina and Antti Herlin Foundation between 2/2016-2/2019. The project now continues with funding from Kone Foundation.