Trump may be out – but cities and states are rallying around the Paris climate change deal

A visual metaphor for growing diplomatic isolation. Image: Getty.

When President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement, the landmark climate accord signed by 196 nations that came into force in November 2016, the decision caused a significant negative backlash among other signatory countries.

Given that the US is one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, its 1 June reneging on the deal delivered a blow to the global agreement. But, as many commentators were quick to point out, as long as other leaders didn’t follow Trump’s lead, it was largely a symbolic one.

So far, the international response has confirmed this: a chain reaction of support for climate change mitigation, from grassroots up to the highest ranks of government.

Making the planet great again

China has reiterated its support for the Paris agreement, and India, the world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, seems likely to continue the renewable energy revolution already underway there.

Europe, led by Germany and France, is also stepping into the fray.

“Make our planet great again,” French President Emmanuel Macron retorted from the Élysée Palace on 1 June, inviting American scientists to France for work on developing solutions to climate change.

In the same speech, Macron also proposed a follow up to the Paris agreement: a global pact on environmental justice, under which states could be held accountable for flouting the rights of a group or individual.

More than any other European leader, the 39-year-old French president seems to represent younger generations’ concerns about climate change. And, of course, the Paris agreement wouldn’t be the Paris agreement without France.

Heat islands

Trump’s environmentalism has also incentivised US stakeholders to play a more central role in holding up the American end of the Paris agreement, which then US secretary of state John Kerry signed in April 2016 with his granddaughter on his lap.

US cities, companies, universities and states are now taking the initiative to cooperate directly with other countries and coordinate initiatives on reducing greenhouse gas emissions via the UN’s Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action portal (NAZCA), which recognises the importance of sub-national actors in climate action. As of 24 June, 331 US cities had adopted the Paris agreement, and at a mayors’ conference in Miami Republican and Democratic leaders supported it:

These pledges may not be legally binding, as they are when countries sign agreements, but the commitments of US cities, states and companies, which will be reported and measured through NAZCA’s data partners, may well have a significant environmental impact.

As former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire philanthropist who has invested $15m in American cities’ effort to engage internationally, said about mitigating climate change in a recent interview on National Public Radio, “Local governments can do something, state governments less and federal governments almost nothing.”

Large cities give rise to the “urban heat island” effect, in which heat-trapping concrete and asphalt replace natural vegetation and water. This steamy situation is exacerbated by heat from cars, subway systems, air conditioners and the like.

Asphalt, buildings and other urban realities can trap heat. Image: NOAA/Wikimedia.

According to new research reported in the journal Nature Climate Change, the heat island effect in the world’s most populous cities – a clutch of sprawling megalopolises that includes Chicago, Houston, and San Diego in the US, as well as Shanghai in China and Lagos in Nigeria – is expected to add 2°C to global warming by 2050.

The study by Francisco Estrada, W. J. Wouter Botzen and Richard S. J. Tol provides the first quantitative assessment of the economic costs of the joint impacts of local and global climate change for all major urban centres around the world.

The analysis, which looked at some 1,500 large cities, shows that the total economic costs of climate change for cities could be 2.6 times higher when heat island effects are taken into account than when they are not. For the worst-off cities, losses could reach more than 10 per cent of their gross domestic product GDP by the end of the century.

There are relatively low-cost solutions to this highly localised problem, from cool pavements, which are designed to reflect more sunlight and absorb less heat, to green roofing.

In Chicago, the City Hall’s green roof helps keep things cool. Image: TonyTheTiger/Wikimedia.

According the the study, converting just 20 per cent of a city’s rooftops and half of its pavements to modern heat-reducing versions could save up to 12 times what they cost to install and maintain, and reduce local air temperatures citywide by up to 0.8°C.

As study author Richard Tol has noted, “City-level adaptation strategies to limit local warming have important economic net benefits for almost all cities around the world. It is clear that we have until now underestimated the dramatic impact that local policies could make in reducing urban warming.”


Global problems, local response

So, from Pittsburgh to Phuket, cities will be essential for keeping the increase in the average global temperature below 2°C, the main goal of the Paris agreement.

The unprecedented bottom-up commitment to this international climate deal is also in the clear interest of participating states and cities, which are most likely to directly and immediately feel the impact of global warming.

California, for example, has a long-term commitment to reducing emissions, alongside its unique technological strengths in renewable energy and research on autonomous cars. Meanwhile, the island state of Hawaii is particularly sensitive to climate change-related sea level rises.

Mayors and governors are also the public officials responsible for common infrastructural needs that can help population centres mitigate climate change, such as reinforcing dikes and improving public transit – eco-friendly investments that also improve quality of life for residents.

In neighbouring Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made battling climate change a priority for his administration, many provinces, including populous Quebec and Ontario, are now making direct agreements with states and cities on cap-and-trade agreements and other environmental initiatives.

The world’s response to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement is a powerful reminder that global challenges – not just climate change but also conflict, migration and others – are profoundly intertwined with local and regional issues.

At a time when countries’ openness to the world has become a matter of contention, many of the world’s most pressing problems still require not just active international collaboration between nation states but also engagement on all levels of government, whether the administration in Washington likes it or not.

The ConversationParis, in this sense, was just the beginning.

Luc Soete is a professorial fellow at United Nations University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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