The Global Urbanist

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The C40 putting cities at the centre of global climate action

The C40 group of cities has pushed through major agreements with the Clinton Foundation and the World Bank this year. But what are the real purposes of these agreements and where does this put cities on the world stage? Michele Acuto offers his analysis.

Michele Acuto

Cities: São Paulo

Topics: City networks, Sustainability, Climate change, The global urban agenda, Global cities

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the C40 summit in Sao Paulo. Photo: Deb Greenspan/C40 Cities
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The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group integrates the efforts of forty large city governments and nineteen affiliate cities taking combined action on climate change. It is perhaps the most significant case of 'global cities' acting as a protagonist in global environmental politics.

In the past months, and particularly at its fourth biannual summit held in São Paulo in June, the C40 has stepped up a gear, developing its strategic ties with both the Clinton Foundation (through the Clinton Climate Initiative) and the World Bank. The current C40 chairman, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg set out a zealous goal: "we can and must work together, more closely and productively. In the process, we will, I am confident, make C40 the world's leading, and most indispensable, climate change organisation."

Merging two key climate players

Since its original function as 'strategic delivery partner', the role of the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) within the C40 has become a crucial one, progressively integrated into what can now be rightfully labelled as a 'hybrid' governing arrangement.

The current C40 chairman, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg set out a zealous goal: "we will, I am confident, make C40 the world's leading, and most indispensable, climate change organisation."

Its role is rooted in three core initiatives sketched out in 2006:

(1) as a fulcrum, integrating the C40 cities into a purchasing consortium and negotiating with the major energy service companies (the so-called ESCOs such as Honeywell and Siemens) to lower the prices of energy saving products and technologies;

(2) to mobilise experts and IT from the private sector to provide technical assistance to the cities; and,

(3) to foster networking between cities on technical matters such as the introduction of emission impact measurement tools and internet-based communication systems amongst local governments.

What began five years ago as a loose coordination of mutually-supported initiatives merged in January 2011 into a common secretariat, doubling the C40's budget to about $15 million and staff members to around 70. Overall, the CCI now stands between the Group's internal political and policymaking enterprise and the means to implement it on the ground.

The linkage with the CCI has allowed the C40 to go beyond the transnational municipal effort of its early days. Through the CCI's mediation, the C40 has managed to encompass several other scales, grouping local governments, an international charity and several private companies in a growing series of public-private partnerships focused on repositioning these cities within the fight against climate change.

Mobilising climate action through private capital for cities

Much of the same could be said for the C40's connection with the World Bank. However, the gestation of this link has been far longer than that of the CCI-C40 partnership. While talks of a formal arrangement were in the air since its early days, the relationship remained largely unclear until the 2011 São Paulo summit, and limited to a common participation in parallel initiatives.

While the CCI linkage has provided some substantive economic support for the Group's long-term sustainability, the prompt to establish a more formal connection with the World Bank emerged from many C40 members' concerns on the financing of retrofit and other projects.

Seen (in the words of World Bank president Robert Zoellick) as "a natural extension of the Bank's relation with each city", the partnership with the Bank is considered crucial in catalysing more private capital and faster payouts on the various projects implemented by the Group at the strategic planning level.

Much of the effort with the Bank thus far has been on developing a consistent approach to climate action planning strategies across the C40, in particular establishing a common approach to measuring and reporting city greenhouse gas emissions. Yet this is not simply a planning concern: standardised action is mainly needed to permit potential investors to identify opportunities across cities and thus to multiply the Group's financing.

Bypassing the UN stalemate

The World Bank linkage offers incentives to the "less active C40 members" (a popular expression at the São Paulo summit) to take up more extensive action. Morever the connection with the Bank's technical experts brings some considerable experience in leveraging 'climate financing' instruments within the private sector, thus enabling links not solely with ESCOs but all kinds of private providers more generally.

As the link with the Bank unfurls in this direction, two themes have become central. First, connecting the Bank's apparatus not solely to the political, but chiefly to the technical dimension of the C40 group's initiatives, allowing both actors to scale up their activities vis-à-vis cities and climate change respectively.

Secondly, this connection allows both parties to bypass the inefficiency of the 'global deal' approach of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by setting up direct connections between the transnational scale of both the Bank and the C40. This push for scalar reach and 'trouble jumping' echoed in Zoellick's words as he underlined how the Bank's interest in setting up a direct linkage with the C40 was mainly prompted by a need to "deepen our partnership directly with cities", as they are "the future of climate change". A declaration that reinforces these cities' appointment as obligatory passage points for environmental governance.

A market-oriented mentality

Yet the Group's network remains a fairly malleable structure. This in turn means that its capacity to mobilise the aggregate pool of these cities' resources is at times quite weak, and that the organisation itself is particularly subject to a multitude of urban agendas affecting the direction of workshops, biannual summits and implementation practices.

This is all the more complicated by the intertwining of the C40 dealings with the CCI, which pushes for a market-friendly approach to governance, in keeping with its prior mission of "applying the Foundation's business-oriented approach to the fight against climate change in practical, measurable, and significant ways."

The coordination of so many diverse interests has thus far been pinpointed onto a 'common gain' and global market-oriented mentality that has to date been presented with little question either from within or without C40 circles. In practice this means that the C40 approach to climate change, already representative of so many local governments' individual needs, is extending to encompass business agendas and NGO approaches that seek a largely neoliberal approach to environmental challenges, a trend that neither the Clinton Foundation nor the World Bank are likely to displace.


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