Madrid, Spain – In a 2017 address distancing himself from the landmark climate agreement, United States President Donald Trump said he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”.
But perhaps no US mayor has quite so forcefully pushed back against Washington’s move as the man representing the boom-and-bust steel city.
“I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future,” Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, said at the time.
Peduto, a colourful ambassador for his city’s dramatic renaissance, was the subject last year of a documentary film, Paris to Pittsburgh, which chronicled the environmental volte-face by the city of bridges in western Pennsylvania.
The mayor likes to brag about running the first government in the world to ban fracking and his appearance in Madrid at the United Nations climate gathering was no exception.
“We may not be the model [for climate action] but we’ve had to overcome so much more than other cities,” said Peduto at COP25.
“It wasn’t only a battle to reclaim our air and water,” he told Al Jazeera. “We diversified our economy and showed that a city based on one industry can come back with a diversified portfolio that is the future.”
Peduto explains how his municipal government identified and mitigated “rivers of carbon [and] lakes of methane”, using advanced technologies to reduce the rates of bus idling and pipeline gas leaks.
In the US, Pittsburgh’s mayor may be one of the most outspoken about the perils of shunning the Paris accord. But within the global context, Peduto is in good company.
The world’s cities are home to a slight majority of the people on Earth, but they account for 80 percent of economic production and at least 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.
The role of cities in accelerating climate action is seen as pivotal both at the national and international levels – creating an opportunity to help meet country targets and safeguard the prosperity of residents. Across 138 countries and representing 864 million people, the compact of mayors seeks to slash the amount of carbon dioxide their smokestacks churn out and help each other adapt to a future in which resilience is key.
With 10,239 cities committed, the Global Covenant of Mayors (GCOM) on Monday released their annual report showing that collectively they could reduce emissions by 2.3 billion tonnes by 2030 and by 4.2 billion tonnes by 2030. In an increasingly blunt recognition of that reality, urban political leaders from around the planet are banding together like never before.
The coalition is made up of several interlocking networks, including the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and other umbrella organisations that promote sustainability in local government.
The common cause uniting mayors is in many ways even more important from the US, where federal disengagement has left a void for subnational actors to step up.
In Madrid this week, mayors from around the globe appeared jointly with their US counterparts – with some in similar predicaments vis-a-vis less ambitious presidents and prime ministers.
“Transforming Tokyo into a carbon-neutral society is key for attracting business and investment,” said Toshiko Chiba, deputy director for the Carbon Policy Planning Section at the Bureau of Environment for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. “This is the future we want.”
Gonzalo Durban Baronti, mayor of Independencia, Chile, travelled further than expected, as the UN gathering was originally scheduled to take place in Santiago.
He demanded that all urban leaders embrace “efficient management and the responsibility to enact better recycling, private transport, public transit and bike lane systems”.
Mayor Carlos Ordosgoitia of Monteria, Colombia echoed that call to share experiences, build technical capacity, discuss financing for climate initiatives and coordinate energy management.
Public engagement is also seen as crucial in giving cities hope to overcome climate obstacles.
One programme aiming to boost engagement among urban officials is the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) One Planet City Challenge, which seeks to mobilise cities across the globe by having them report their climate commitments and actions through a standardised platform.
A related WFF initiative, We Love Cities, is designed to take things a step further by galvanising ordinary citizens to take action.
“Getting citizens to be proud” is the main goal, said WWF’s Jennifer Lenhart.
Making the fight more inclusive is also seen as vital.
“It’s not just about white men in Silicon Valley trying to develop the next app to help walk their dog,” said Matt Petersen, president of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator. “We need all ages, all races, to solve the climate issue. We know the climate crisis is real. If citizens are to respond, mayors need to lead the way.”
Petersen is LA’s former chief sustainability officer under Mayor Eric Garcetti – who is currently the chair of both C40 and Climate Mayors, which brings together 438 urban leaders in the US who want to uphold the Paris deal.
Former Mayor of New York City and GCOM co-chair Mike Bloomberg was also in Madrid this week highlighting the vital role cities have to play in the fight against global warming.
“No one is more capable of acting on climate than mayors,” Bloomberg said at an event Tuesday to announce the frontrunners of the Global Climate City Challenge.
Bloomberg, who recently joined the field of Democratic candidates running for US president in 2020, also used the occassion to criticise the incumbant US president.
“We want the world to know that Americans are continuing to act on climate change, even with a climate denier in the White House,” he added.