Cities as key actors in the fight against climate change

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As climate change is a global issue, the expected approach is to treat states as entities that are responsible for the ratification and enforcement of relevant international agreements. This, of course, corresponds to the undertaking of policies at the national level with one goal: to mitigate the risks inflicted on the environment and to protect biodiversity for the health of all citizens.

However, such a 'Westphalian sovereignty model'[1] is slowly decreasing in significance as new actors emerge.[2] A prime example are non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which gain more and more influence worldwide[3], notably, by being able to appear in Court as entities representing the public good or for being present as observers in treaty negotiations.

This article is zooming in on a different type of actor, the importance of which is rising in the current transnational settings of our globalised world: cities, and how they could become indispensable actors in the fight against climate change.

The potential of cities

Cities are big polluters. More than half of the world’s 7.8 billion population lives in cities, and this is estimated to grow to 6 billion people by 2050.[4] Cities deliver 75% of global economic activity, making them responsible for at least half of all the greenhouse gas emissions, notably by responding to their citizens’ need for heating, cooling, lighting, transportation, entertainment and more.[5]

Their status as ‘big polluters’ makes them suitable actors to engage in the fight against climate change. A coordinated approach between national governments and cities could allow for a better implementation of national policies, as cities possess some ‘regulatory and economic tools at their disposal’[6], such as fees, taxes and bans, which can be easily used for the common good.[7] This reflects the developing trend of approaching matters in a ‘glocalised’ way, thus recognising both the global and local dimensions that accord such issues.

In terms of mitigating the effects of climate change, cities can be useful in a variety of domains, including local waste management, car circulation, low emission zones, pedestrian zones as well as the better administration of public spaces. The role of cities and their respective ‘action or inaction may therefore determine the outcome of global warming’.[8]

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The power of local: Ashton Hayes, England

The English village of Ashton Hayes, with approximately 1000 inhabitants, located just to the South of Liverpool, became a climate leader following its residents’ initiative.[9] Notably by reducing heating and investing in solar panels, they have managed to reach a 24% cut in emissions by 2016, 10 years after the launch of the project.[10] The village’s community, now, also possesses their own renewable energy company.[11]

Following this success, around 200 other towns’ representatives from countries all over the world, including Norway, the United States and Taiwan, have reached out to understand how Ashton Hayes achieved this cut. The answer was simple: behavioural change, centred on the people and free from any political involvement.[12]

The outcome of this case study demonstrates that behavioural change is key to solving, or at least limiting, the consequences of climate change. This is crucial when considering the role cities or municipalities can play towards environmental issues, as local administration is the closest to the people than the national government and, therefore, more likely to influence the norms and behaviours of its people.[13]

However, this case study remains one of a small scale, as the village has only 1000 inhabitants and does not take into account the number of issues that would arise if megacities, such as London, New York or Tokyo, were to follow this approach.

EU: the right scale?

In the 2013 EU Adaptation Strategy, which focused on climate change, the role of cities was highlighted in relation to implementation but also in an attempt to combat climate change at the local, regional, national and EU levels.[14] The EU also introduced the Covenant of Mayors which focused on the cooperation of cities as main actors and was centred on the ‘local climate and energy actions’.[15]

Similarly, the EU launched another project that allies the development of technology and environmental goals: ‘Smart Cities’. The aim of this project is to use smart technologies to promote sustainable urban environments through better use of resources. This includes reducing energy consumption of buildings, financing for energy efficient renovations and developing smarter transport networks.[16]

The EU, therefore, recognises not only the potential of cities as actors fit to combat climate change, but also their legitimacy to act. Such a coordinated approach, whereby large cities will be cooperating within the EU governance structure: based on soft law mechanisms such as guidelines and indicators, benchmarking and sharing best practice; appears to be a fair middle ground to achieve balance between global and local action.

Despite the encouraging points described above, one issue that seems to arise is the fact that the public is not aware of such initiatives. Indeed, when taking the conclusions of the Ashton Hayes case study, what matters is the people’s behavioural change, yet the EU’s poor communication strategies, coupled with the spread of anti-EU tabloids, renders this norms-changing task a challenging transitory process.

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The International Coalition: C40

A similar project was initiated at a global scale: the C40 coalition, which involves 97 cities, among which New York, Washington DC, Montreal, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Istanbul, Cape Town, Nairobi, Singapore, Seoul, Sydney and represents more than 700 million citizens.[17]

The commitment of the coalition is to meet the targets of the 2016 Paris Agreement by focusing on the impact of local action while cooperating and sharing ideas and knowledge on sustainability.[18] According to a study released by the C40 network, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 8 gigatons through city action alone, in relation to pollution from cars, buildings and garbage, in addition to any other national policies.[19]

The C40 Annual Report 2020 highlighted some of the network’s achievements over a 10-year period, such as imposing restrictions (an increase of 75%) on high polluting vehicles, which in turn introduced cycle hire schemes that increased by more than 600%, incentivising renewable electricity which increased by 650% and which resulted in investing in flood risk tackling strategies which increased almost 14-fold.[20]

Looking ahead to 2021-2024, the C40 decided to aim on creating jobs within cities, focusing on cleaner air and green public spaces as well as supporting walking and cycling to offer healthier urban environments, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.[21] However, echoing to the issue raised in relation to the EU, there is a general lack of awareness on such initiatives; this stresses the importance of mayoral elections which are sometimes overlooked by the public. Another issue related to the C40 initiative is the difficulty in establishing efficient accountability and enforcement of certain standards.

Difficulties in granting power to cities

Although promoting cities as the main actors to fight climate change on the international scene bears many positive aspects, ‘the costs of allowing cities to participate might be mitigated through the design of a process in which cities are allowed to participate’.[22]

This is because the most conventional way to include cities in international processes would be to recognise them as having an international legal personality, therefore, allowing them to sign international agreements.[23] But, the increasing number of actors possessing legal personality in the international scene bears negative outcomes: i.e., it may reduce the chances of reaching agreements.[24]

Instead, the middle ground should be to have international treaties between states at the first stage and then let mayors sign supplementary agreements on behalf of their cities, that national governments could enforce.[25] This would allow more accountability while not granting the status of legal personality to cities.


Emerging trends, such as the EU project of Smart Cities or the C40 network, support the ascension of cities as key actors in the fight against climate change. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres pointed out that ‘cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost’[26], demonstrating that politicians recognise the place of cities as global changemakers in combatting climate change.

Nonetheless, as the village of Ashton Hayes proves, what matters now are behavioural and normative changes carried out by the public, which can only be achieved through raising awareness at local scale. Behavioural change ought to start through informed participation in local elections, such as mayoral elections, by giving the opportunity to citizens to actively improve their immediate environment and mandate the elected to fulfil their electoral promises, including environmental goals, at the local scale.

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[1] ‘It is generally held to mean a system of states or international society comprising sovereign state entities possessing the monopoly of force within their mutually recognized territories’; 'Westphalian State System' (Oxford Reference, 2021) accessed 26 May 2021. [2] Steve Charnovitz, ‘Nongovernmental Organizations and International Law’ (1996) 100 AM. J. INT'L L. 348, 353.

[3] Ibid. [4] David Biello, 'Climate Change Will Be Solved In Cities--Or Not At All' (Scientific American, 2021) accessed 20 May 2021. [5] Ibid. [6] Danielle Spiegel-Feld and Katrina M. Wyman, ‘Cities as Global Environmental Actors: The Case of Marine Plastics’ 62(2) Arizona Law Review (2019) 23. [7] Ibid 12. [8] Spiegel-Feld and Wyman (n6). [9] 'English Village Becomes Climate Leader By Quietly Cleaning Up Its Own Patch' (Published 2016)' (, 2016) accessed 21 May 2021. [10] Ibid. [11] 'Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral - Home' (, 2021) accessed 21 May 2021. [12] (n9). [13] Spiegel-Feld and Wyman (n6) 13. [14] 'Climate Adaptation In Cities' (European Commission - European Commission, 2021) accessed 22 May 2021.

[15] 'Global Covenant Of Mayors For Climate And Energy Opens Headquarters In Brussels' (European Commission - European Commission, 2021) accessed 22 May 2021. [16] 'Smart Cities' (European Commission - European Commission, 2021) accessed 22 May 2021. [17] 'C40' (, 2021) accessed 22 May 2021. [18] Ibid. [19] Biello (n4). [20] C40 Cities Annual Report 2020, 5 (accessible via n 17). [21] Ibid 20. [22] Spiegel-Feld and Wyman (n6) 14. [23] Ibid. [24] Ibid. [25] Ibid 15. [26] 'C40: Mayors Announce Support For Global Green New Deal; Recognize Global Climate Emergency' (C40, 2021) accessed 22 May 2021.

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