Sep 19, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: Kerry, China envoy to co-chair 1st local climate summit

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The first local climate summit will take place at the U.N. climate meeting in Dubai later this year.

Driving the news: The confab will include hundreds of mayors, governors and other regional leaders together with heads of state, COP28 president-designate Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber and UN special envoy Michael Bloomberg plan to announce this morning.

The details: The event will have several co-chairs, including President Biden's climate envoy, John Kerry, and his counterpart from China, Xie Zhenhua.

  • Given the tensions between the two countries over trade, Taiwan and more, the joint billing is noteworthy; it could be a signal that climate change is still an area of potential cooperation, as Kerry has long tried to emphasize.

Why it matters: Countries get most of the attention for their climate measures. Yet when added together, city, state and regional governments are helping to cut emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases and boost resilience measures to extreme weather events.

COP28's local focus will help foster progress in mitigating and adapting to climate change at all levels of government.

  • It will amount to the biggest mobilization around local leaders for climate, organizers said.

Yes, but: China is also home to many of the globe's growing megacities, making this topic of keen relevance to its government. Meanwhile, Kerry and Xie will be joined as co-chairs by several other luminaries.

Between the lines: Actions at the local level constitute the climate policies that many people see in their everyday lives, in the U.S. and abroad. Alignment between nations is difficult enough, but local and regional governments' climate plans amount to a patchwork quilt of emissions pledges and plans, many of them designed with different targets in mind.

  • Some cities, for example, may be seeking to hit a net zero target (that term's meaning is itself a matter for some debate this week at Climate Week NYC), while others may be aiming for an emissions reduction compared to a base year.
  • This could be a tricky challenge for the chairs to address but also a task long overdue.

The intrigue: This is the first time that a COP presidency has announced a formal sub-national summit within the COP process. It will be hosted jointly by the COP presidency and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

  • Hundreds of leaders are expected, including governors, mayors, business leaders, World Bank representatives, coalitions of cities and their supporting groups. UN-Habitat to the Under2 Coalition and America are all in and are also expected to take part in the Dec. 1 and 2 event.

What they’re saying: “Cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. "Mobilizing and equipping local governments with the capacity and financing to accelerate climate action is necessary if we are to bend the emissions curve."

  • “Cities and subnational leaders have been at the forefront of climate action — accelerating ambition, delivering results and dealing with climate impacts in real time,” said al-Jaber.
  • He noted that new partnerships may come out of this summit that could help scale up climate finance, speed up the transition to cleaner energy sources and ensure that local voices are reflected at the international climate talks.

Flashback: Mayors first convened on the sidelines of COP21 in Paris in 2015, which jump-started collaborations between cities, states and other entities.

  • This new effort comes after years in which cities, states and regional governments have been more focused on climate action, sometimes doing so to counter a lack of action at the national level.
  • According to a 2022 report from the C40 coalition of cities, three-quarters of them were cutting emissions at faster rates than their national governments.

By the numbers: With the growing concentration of the world population in cities — one estimate shows about 70% of people worldwide will live in urban areas by 2050, climate policy is increasingly a matter of urban planning and management.

  • Cities that were built for a climate that no longer exists must now be able to withstand threats such as stronger tropical cyclones, higher seas due to sea level rise and more common and extreme heat waves.

The bottom line: Bringing subnational governments into the U.N. Climate Summit process could yield more effective climate policies, since many countries have decentralized systems where governors and mayors hold significant sway.

  • A major task for COP28 is to gauge where progress is occurring on pace to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement, and where the gaps are.
  • Bringing subnational governments into this process could make way for a fuller accounting.
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