Can cities save the planet with climate action?

Cities are responsible for 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions but they can save the planet by greening one community at a time said Vancouver's David Cadman at the close of the ICLEI World Congress 2015, the triennial sustainability summit of local governments in Seoul, South Korea.

"We can do it. We must do it," Cadman, the retiring president of Local Governments for Sustainability, told some 1,500 delegates from nearly 1,000 cities and local governments in 96 countries on April 11.

The majority of climate actions and most plans to reduce CO2 emissions are happening at the city level, Cadman told DeSmog Canada in Seoul.

Vancouver and 50 other cities have committed to 100 per cent renewable energy and 500 more are part of ICLEI's Cities Climate Registry that documents verifiable CO2 emission reduction actions and commitments that amounted to 2.8 billion tons a year in 2014.

Cadman, a former City of Vancouver councillor, has been president of ICLEI since 2006. It's an international organization headquartered in Bonn, Germany, with 280 staff and 23 other offices scattered around the globe. ICLEI, which stands for International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, started 25 years ago in Toronto to help cities become more sustainable. It now goes by the more manageable name of "Local Governments for Sustainability," but still uses the original acronym.

Canada's federal and provincial governments were very strong supporters in the early days but the past decade has been very different.

"We seem to be chained to the fossil energy industry in Canada and it's pulling us down. Cities and organizations can hardly dare to speak out about this now," he said.

Germany was only too happy to bring ICLEI to Bonn eight years ago and has been generous with its support, along with the European Union. Now the organization is experiencing what is being called an "Asian pivot," with the mayor of Seoul, Park Won Soon, as the new president.

Park has helped Seoul to become one of the world's leaders on sustainable development. With 11 million people and growing fast, Seoul will reduce its energy use and increase renewable generation including rolling out 40,000 solar panels to households by 2018 and 15,000 electric vehicles. By 2030, CO2 emissions will be cut 40 per cent.

"Action on climate will be by local governments no matter what national governments decide," Park Won Soon told DeSmog Canada.

"We need to act quickly, we need to act energetically," the mayor said.

China's megacities are also joining ICLEI. At the congress, Hailong Li, deputy secretary general of the China Eco-city Council said the country will have 100 low-carbon eco-cities by 2017. That will drive down the costs of energy efficiency and renewable energy, Li said.

China also intends to become an expert on eco-construction and to market its expertise to the rest of the developing world.

By 2030 another 3.5 billion people will be living in cities so it is absolutely critical that the infrastructure be sustainable said Cadman who will continue to be active as special representative to the new ICLEI President.

"I'm 70 now and need to reduce my workload. My wife says she'd like me to be around a bit longer."

Canadian cities could also do more and sooner if they had the support of provincial and federal governments, he said. That may be changing at the provincial level with growing support for various forms of carbon taxes that will help generate funds and financial incentives to reduce emissions.

"The provinces are doing the heavy-lifting on climate while the Harper government sits on the sidelines."

Fossil fuels are in decline -- divestment is taking off and investments are shifting to renewable energy. There'll be no pipelines to the West Coast and no new investments in the oil sands, Cadman said.

Even in B.C., the hoped-for markets for LNG may not exist with China building gas pipelines to tap reserves in Iran and Russia, he said.

"Canada needs to move away from selling raw resources, but is any political party ready to go there?"

This article was first published on DeSmog Canada.

Stephen Leahy is the senior science and environment correspondent at Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) based in Rome and Montevideo. To continue this work at a time of severe cutbacks and closure of many media, Leahy launched Community Supported Journalism.

Image Credit: David Cadman and Park Won Soon at the World Congress 2015. By Stephen Leahy

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