Opinion: Cities need a voice at COP28, and here’s what they would call for

As COP28 unfolds, experts recommend a set of steps to foreground urban concerns and arrive at the right solutions.

COP28 emerges at a crucial juncture for global climate action amid escalating temperatures and unprecedented climate-related events. It is placed historically – as per the UN’s global stocktake synthesis report – to align with the Paris Agreement’s goals and address numerous issues, steering the world towards a more sustainable trajectory. 

COP28 includes the inaugural global stocktake, a pivotal mechanism for evaluating progress under the Paris Agreement, putting into action the loss and damage fund from COP27 and figuring out a plan for the global goal on adaptation in the Paris Agreement. Also, parties are discussing aspects like a switch to cleaner energy, transforming food systems, and the ongoing challenge of finding money for dealing with climate issues. 

Amidst these discussions, the fact that COP28 has dedicated a special day to a ministerial meeting on urbanisation and climate change is particularly encouraging. The move reflects COP28’s commitment to fostering dialogue and concrete actions for the development of sustainable, climate-resilient cities. It is in this important juncture that there is a need to relook the possibility of bringing the spotlight on critical aspects of cities from India and the global south in general, in the climate change discourse. 

Context: Where are the cities in COP28?  

Cities, projected to house 80% of humanity by 2050, are emerging as pivotal battlegrounds in the intersecting challenges of climate change and social inequities. In the global south, urban centres in Africa, Asia, Latin America, alongside other developing countries, exemplify the heightened vulnerability of these regions to the escalating impacts of climate change. 

The imperative to focus on cities at COP28 and beyond is multi-faceted. Firstly, while climate actions historically evolved from sectors like agriculture, farming, and energy, the predominant form of human living—cities—has not been a central point of discussion. Secondly, cities stand as major contributors to emissions and energy consumption, bearing the brunt of climate change impacts such as floods, heatwaves, and droughts, which are becoming more severe and evident. 

People walking in flooded streets in North Chennai
Cities are increasingly bearing the brunt of climate change and extreme weather events are growing more frequent. In the picture, people try to make their way through flooded streets in North Chennai, after Cyclone Michaung wreaked havoc in December 2023. Pic: Dilip Srinivasan

The ‘visible’ disaster impacts of urban flooding in Delhi in July 2023, or in the ongoing Chennai floods due to cyclone Michaung are examples that are impacting cities far too often. The unscientific and non-sensitive, top-down, expert led urban planning practices further add to the chaos and rather than adapting to mitigate climate change impacts contributes through maladaptation. These high value infrastructure projects – like the Mumbai Coastal Road Project, or the increasingly ubiquitous waste incinerators, or even the smog towers in Delhi – are at best perception builders, and at worst contributors to the increasing vulnerabilities of the cities. 

Read more: Are Mumbaikars prepared for the environmental impact of new coastal projects?

Thirdly, as wealth generators and “engines of growth,” cities simultaneously harbour pockets of poverty and marginalised populations most profoundly impacted by the climate crisis, often facing threats under the guise of environmental protection. The G20 events and following spate of covering up of slums are a grim reminder of the same. 

Moreover, marginalised communities residing in informal settlements and engaged in informal livelihoods disproportionately bear the burdens, underscoring the urgent need for climate justice. Beyond environmental concerns, climate action becomes a call to rectify deeply ingrained social inequities and enhance resilience among the most vulnerable urban populations. 

Fourthly, cities frequently find themselves excluded from climate action planning and preparation, with a policy blind spot in many Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and a lack of representation in debates about climate justice and loss and damage funds. This has started to change somewhat in the Indian context with many cities drafting their own  climate action plans, namely Mumbai, Chennai & more recently Bengaluru; however, the efforts are far too less, without any seemingly coherent national strategy for cities on climate action. Therefore, it is not a matter of surprise that urban centres and their concerns do not receive the amount of fiscal allocation that they deserve. 

Lastly, despite urban areas being at the forefront of climate impacts, their governments and communities often lack representation, participation, and influence at COP28, where it is usually the parties (with the heads of state) that garner attention and space. There is also sometimes a plethora of platforms and coalitions, but none that deals with cities and their communities squarely. And therefore, the urban is diluted across thematic in COP discussions.  

All this underscores the need for new, imaginative ways to address urban concerns and ensure that cities have a seat at the table in climate policy discussions. As COP28 unfolds, it is crucial to foreground these urban questions, acknowledging the interconnectedness of climate action, social justice, and the well-being of urban populations in the face of a rapidly changing world.

Recommendations from the urban frontline

Recognising the above, a collective of civil society organizations dedicated to the urban, hosted a press conference to bring attention to the issues. They were represented by, apart from the authors themselves, Mackenzie Dabre of the National Hawker Federation of India; Priyadarshini Karve from INECC & LAYA in India; Elisa Sutanudjaja from the Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Indonesia; David Munene representing CYNESA; and Ajay Jha from Pairavi in India. 

Besides bringing attention to emerging issues, the press conference aimed to highlight crucial aspects that needed discussion during the following weeks of COP28 deliberations, particularly concerning cities in the global south. 

Based on an assessment of climate realities and the urban connection, they came up with the following recommendations for shaping resilient cities.

Participation and recognition of urban vulnerable communities as constituencies in COP

Emphasising the fundamental principle of “Nothing for us without us,” there is a need to recognise that urban vulnerable communities are amongst the most impacted, are vast in number and require a seat at the table. These may be those living in informal settlements, informal workers or the urban homeless, who are each unique and have their share of concerns. 

Read more: Cyclone Michaung: North Chennai people left to fend for themselves

Recognising the diverse and unique challenges faced by vulnerable populations is crucial in formulating effective and equitable climate solutions. Presently there are nine constituencies recognised in COP with farmers, indigenous people, youth and others who are clustered together for their coordinated demands.  

Advocating shared vertical governance mechanisms with representation of cities in COP and back home at national level policy debates 

Addressing a critical gap in COP negotiations, the press conference underscored the often-overlooked aspect of shared governance at both national and local levels. Collaborative decision-making structures, involving cooperation and coordination between national and local authorities, can pave the way for an integrated approach to tackle climate challenges. That can bring about a more cohesive and effective response to climate issues. This is especially critical keeping in mind the thousands of small cities, that are fast urbanising in the continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 

Need for a fair share: Correcting funding disparities for effective climate action

Urgently addressing this funding disparity is crucial to ensure cities receive adequate financial support for implementing effective climate action measures. This in proportion to the impacts, the vulnerability and scale of populations. Regarding loss and damage funding, a significant worry is the complex and exclusive mechanisms, limiting access to qualified and registered organizations. 

To address this, there’s a need to reform disbursement processes for fairness and accessibility. Simplifying these mechanisms is crucial for effective transparency and anti-corruption efforts, fostering inclusivity and accountability in addressing loss and damage. 

Read more: How can a climate action plan unlock climate finance for Bengaluru?

City governments as key drivers for climate action loss and damage management

It is recognised that local governments are primary actors for climate action in the local. But the governance mechanisms that exist in most countries restrict the functioning of local governments. This recommendation acknowledges the localised expertise and resilience of city leaders in managing climate-related challenges. It is thus important to involve them in critical decision-making at the global level so that they can truly set local examples to solve global challenges.

Recognising informality and people-based solutions

A view of Bapunagar slum in Surat
People living in informal self-constructed settlements such as these are often the worst affected by extreme climate events. Representational image. Pic Dharmesh Joshi

With over 80% of workforce employed in the informal sector, and with 40-70% of population residing in people-built settlements, informality needs to be recognized as an intrinsic part of cities of the south. There is thus a need for acknowledging and leveraging people-based solutions to climate challenges, drawing from the unique characteristics of each urban context.

Read more: Engaging communities in informal settlements in the climate change agenda

Reimagining planning for sustainable cities

Current urban planning policies are burdened with archaic and pre-climate cross frameworks, which view development as a just dominance over nature. Everything is assessed as building space – for concrete structures. There is a need for a comprehensive reassessment and rehaul of these policies. There have to be policies aligned with sustainable and climate-resilient urban development, urging a paradigm shift toward more progressive, inclusive, and participatory urban planning.

Solutions not Eurocentric – embracing southern perspectives

Urging a departure from Eurocentric solutions that are not economically viable and socially feasible (like the case of EVs), there is a need for solutions to emerge organically from the Global South itself. This includes frameworks like the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA), emphasising the importance of diverse perspectives and solutions that resonate with the unique challenges faced by regions outside contexts that are traditionally perceived as ‘developed’.

Beyond climate actions to equity, human rights and right to the city

The debate on cities transcends mere climate actions, it is equally about equity and human rights. Climate actions must be rooted in justice, ensuring that the responses to climate challenges are fair, inclusive and respect the fundamental rights of all individuals, especially those most vulnerable.

The call for better city plans, fairer policies, and putting people at the centre of decisions is loud and clear. As we step into COP28, we’re not just talking – we’re hoping to see real actions that make our cities stronger, safer and fairer.

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  1. Shyam A K says:

    While I appreciate the intiative, I am afraid that this will be just another addition to the COP which has already enough representations and we did not move even an inch from Paris Agreement to the latest COP28. The problem is that we seem to be looking at climate change in isolation (carbon dioxide) while the ‘Atmospheric Chemistry’ has altogether a different message which we barely have understood.

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