With activists such as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and advocates in the Extinction Rebellion movement taking an increasingly visible stand on climate change, public officials feel growing pressure to respond, mayors gathered in Copenhagen said on Friday.
Young protesters demonstrating across the world are driving cities to step up action on global warming, not least because politicians keep coming face-to-face with them while going about their business, city leaders from Seattle to Freetown told an international climate conference held in the capital of Denmark.
“The pressure, especially from young people, is just enormous,” he said. “They are fed up with declarations, with goals and priorities…They want to see results.”
Leaders of more than 90 cities representing more than 700 million people and a quarter of the global economy met in the Danish capital this week to push for faster action to stem climate threats.
On Friday, the mayors promised to create a Global Youth Initiative to help deliver a Global Green New Deal.
“It is not even about a specific piece of legislation, it is about a global change of values, ideals, and ways of relating to each other and the Earth,” said Jamie Margolin, Zero Hour founder and co-executive director.
The gathering came as Extinction Rebellion activists took to the streets from London to New Zealand for two weeks of peaceful civil disobedience.
“Mayors are on the frontline now,” former United States Vice President Al Gore told the conference. “You do not have the luxury of just going away and reading reports about what is going on. You run into your constituents every single day.”
On Thursday Extinction Rebellion attempted to shut down London City Airport, with one protester lying on top of a plane. On Friday they blocked the headquarters of the BBC, the public service broadcaster in the United Kingdom.
Earlier this week, members of the movement in France blocked a street and bridge in Paris’ Chatelet district. The city’s mayor and C40 chair, Anne Hidalgo, said she shared their concern.
“We are facing threats of climate breakdown – the response that we’re seeing from Extinction Rebellion and young climate strikers around the globe should come as no surprise,” she said.
“As mayors, it is our duty, responsibility and privilege to support them in creating the future they want.”
In Copenhagen, city leaders unveiled a series of pledges and measures to cut planet-warming emissions, from reducing meat consumption to tackling air pollution with cheap bus fares and vehicle bans.
But delegates at the summit opening on Wednesday were met by demonstrators from Klima Aktion DK, a local climate action group, armed with fake binoculars made from toilet rolls.
“Our message to the C40 Mayors is: The people are watching you! We want to see action!” the group wrote on Facebook.
Cities are vital to limit global warming as they account for about three-quarters of carbon emissions and consume more than two-thirds of global energy, according to the United Nations.
Wider use of existing clean technologies – such as electric buses – could deliver more than half the cuts needed to keep global temperature rise to below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, the UN says.
World leaders agreed in the 2015 Paris agreement to hold temperate hikes to “well below” that threshold.
“Cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Copenhagen summit.
Hilda Nakabuye, the founder of Fridays for Future in Uganda, said her family had been forced to sell its land and livestock as heavy rains, high winds and dry spells linked to climate change had wiped away crops and made the soil barren.
“Your beds might be comfortable right now but not for long. You’ll soon feel the same heat that we feel every day,” she warned.
Many mayors in attendance said they were inspired by the resolve shown by young activists – and somewhat surprised by the rapid growth of their movement.
Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala said the city council was planning to consult young people in climate matters. But translating ideas into concrete action was not always easy, as not everybody agreed on what should be done, said the mayor of Lisbon, Fernando Medina.
Even simple measures such as creating more cycle lanes often faced opposition from residents and politicians when, for example, they encroached on parking spaces, he said.
“I don’t have a magic wand,” he said. “But I can tell [young people] that I can work every day to make things happen more quickly”.
Others lamented that cities alone could not solve the climate crisis. “Cities are leading the change, but countries need to do their part too,” said the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau.
At least 70 countries announced plans at the UN Climate Action Summit last month to boost efforts to cut emissions, but most major economies, including the United States and China, failed to announce stronger new measures.