Cities to the power! How climate governance can be revolutionized in the age of rapid urban growth


Mayors from all over the world at the Covenant of Mayors 2018 ceremony held at the European Parliament. Photo credit: [European Parliament]

We’ve heard it all before: the world is becoming increasingly urbanized with currently almost 55% of the world population living in cities and a projected 60% by 2030 (UN report world cities, 2016). Most of this growth will be taking place in the Global South where population trends are predicted to rise rapidly and already, of the world’s 31 mega cities, 24 are located in the Global South (UN report world cities, 2016). However, cities around the world generate 80% of global GDP – and hearing things like “New York City has a larger economy than Spain, South Korea, or Mexico” (Barber, 2017) or “If Tokyo was a nation, it would rank as the 15th largest economy in the world” no longer come as a surprise. Despite the fact that cities only take up about 2% of the world’s surface area, they account for around 70% of greenhouse gas emission and use about 75% of global energy supply (UN-HABITAT, 2011UN-Habitat Energy, 2012).

In recent years, Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), such as the Paris Agreement, have been attempts by nation states to limit the amount of green house gas emissions and the warming of our planet. Although I say nation states, various actors including multi-national corporations, various UN institutions, the World Trade Organization, NGOs, and many more stakeholders are involved in the long process of making MEAs. Despite this, nation states are still the main governing bodies considered to have the most power and the only ones able to making legally binding promises. However, with a focus on nation states in MEAs we haven’t really been seeing much progress. If we continue like this, our planet will most likely warm up by more than the set target of 2 degrees. Although climate change impacts are becoming increasingly severe and scientific evidence on a changing climate grows, nations are not really showing enough determination to live up to their promises. “Classical” nation state focused climate action does not seem to be enough for an effective way of governing the issue of climate change. In today’s world, where everything is becoming increasingly “global” and interconnected, nation states seem to become less and less effective in regulating the global sphere. State sovereignty, meaning that states are fully autonomous in their decision-making and have the full right to exercise authority over the population living within their geographical boundaries, is an important principle to keep in mind here. There is no higher authority to answer to and only bonds or agreements with other sovereign nation states really guide their behavior towards the rest of the world (this is somewhat simplified). Since the global climate does not respect borders, the whole issue of climate change poses a threat to state sovereignty because nation states are afraid of having to give it up, partially by obeying to some higher law (EU law for instance).

But maybe the way in which we have previously envisioned climate action to work needs to change. Instead of well-working environmental agreements between sovereign nation states we see cities stepping up the game, voluntarily binding themselves to ambitious targets and establishing subnational climate governance systems (think of this  possible future scenario: a conference of the parties (COP) where Tokyo and New York City are having a vivid negotiation on who will set a more ambitious GHG emission reduction target). This seems especially relevant in the context of a current rise in populist movements. With Trump being president of the United States and announcing that he wants to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, U.S. cities have been declaring ambitious targets for keeping up their promises made in the Paris Agreement. Atlanta for instance committed to the use of 100% renewable energy by 2035. With the prospects outlined in the beginning, this seems to be a promising level, at which a lot can and should be done. I am not suggesting that this should or will be the only level, at which climate action can take place, but rather I am emphasizing the potentials for multilevel or vertical governance. But how exactly does that work and which networks are already out there? Let’s take a closer look….

Trans-municipal networks (TMNs) are networks between cities, municipalities or local governments around the world, with the aim of providing a platform to share knowledge and best practices to establish collective goals, to enhance learning and capacity. The biggest TMNs particularly concerned with the issue of climate change include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the Covenant of Mayors, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, the Global Parliament of Mayors, and the 100 Resilient Cities to name a few. Although taking on somewhat different forms, each of these networks aims to improve cities-to-city collaboration and finding solutions in innovative ways. Key words such as ‘monitoring’, ‘action plan’, ‘capacity building’, ‘technical support’, ‘facilitation of knowledge exchange’, ‘progress report’ or ‘development of best-practices’ pop up in almost all networks mentioned above. Oftentimes, these networks are funded by big private funds such as for instance the 100 Resilient Cities, which is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, or C40, which is funded by private funds including the Bloomberg Philanthropies. While most of the trans-municipal networks claim to be global, many criticize the fact that cities located in the Global South are clearly underrepresented. This of course is highly problematic since most of the growth in the near future will be taking place there and in addition, in these cities concepts like ‘technical support’ or ‘capacity building’ really could take on a different meaning.

So what can we learn from this? I think there is a lot of potential in trans-municipal networks, not only because they are moving away from state-centered climate action towards a multilevel governance-approach but even more so because they emphasize the need for local action in times of a global crisis. Maybe this local, more tangible focus is just what we need to combat the issue of climate change…



Barber, B. R. (2017). Cool cities: Urban sovereignty and the fix for global warming. Yale University Press.

Florida, R., (2017, March 16). The Economic Power of Global Cities compared to Nations. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2016). The World’s Cities in 2016 – Data Booklet (ST/ESA/ SER.A/392). Retrieved from:

UN-Habitat (2011): “Hot Cities: battle-ground for climate change”. From: Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements 2011. Retreived from:

4 thoughts on “Cities to the power! How climate governance can be revolutionized in the age of rapid urban growth

  1. Cool post! I was just wondering, how would the unwilling be included in such networks? So far we see, as you mentioned, that municipal networks are mostly comprised of rich developed cities which want to keep climate change on their agenda anyway. What incentives do you think such cities could give to less “green” cities to push them into climate action as well? Also, wouldn’t the enlargement of such networks lead to a free-riding problem, similar to that of states? How do you could that be solved?


  2. I think the whole point of these networks is that they are voluntary and that cities are therefore also able to decide on their target themselves. However, you are asking an important question here: How do we push cities, who might not have sufficient resources, into climate action? I think some of these networks actually try to accommodate for “poorer” cities mainly by providing technical support & capacity building but also surely through the facilitation of knowledge exchange and development of best practices. As for richer cities that are not part of such a network I think international pressure or “naming and shaming” could work well. That way these cities might feel incentivised to take action. For the last question you posed: I guess you’re right. But then again – this is already kind of an extension of or addition to the “traditional” state-focused approach and therefore it might not even matter that much.


  3. I think it’s amazing to see how different institutions and levels of society are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to climate change. Most people will agree, that the trickling down of (inter-)national policies is too slow to turn the tides quickly enough. Cities networking with cities and other institutions, trying to figure out their very own climate strategies just seems like a logical step between radical grassroot activism and international climate negotiations. The stronger and more diverse these networks are becoming, the more hope I have for a swift change.


  4. Hi Charlotte, very interesting post. You mention all these trans-municipal networks, which seems like good initiatives, but what did they change so far? Do you have any examples of their achievements? I do really believe in the power of cities to combat climate change. Vancouver is a great example of a city that is effectively greening all its habits in order to become the greenest city by 2020. However, I doubt whether a great increase in the number of platforms will increase efficiency (there already exist so many). It is eventually not about the number of trans-municipal networks but about their effectiveness.


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