Covenant of Mayors Calls upon Collective Action of Cities

By Stephanie Chiao

Covenant-of-Mayors2The Holy Grail for mitigating climate change lies within cities, which account for 70 per cent of energy in Europe. This was a central theme of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s speech as he welcomed 600 participants to the 4th annual Covenant of Mayors ceremony in Brussels on June 24. The event gathered 200 mayors from 35 countries in the European region as they committed to achieve at least a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020.

To date the initiative has garnered the support of more than 4,800 signatories, which represent places ranging from villages to large metropolitan areas. Signatories must develop Sustainable Energy Action Plans (SEAP) within a year of pledging to the Covenant of Mayors, which is in simple terms a blueprint for how the region will meet its emissions target. They are required to submit implementation reports every two years thereafter to monitor carbon emission progress. At present, the signatories oversee roughly 169 million inhabitants – representing a third of the total EU population.

As keynote speaker for the opening ceremony, former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger drew reference to his green policies in California, noting that “we believe in a new way, in moving forward at the subnational level – in the states and provinces and cities – just like we’ve done in California”. The governor was responsible for laying the foundation for the first state-wide emissions trading program, which came into effect on January 1 this year.

It is difficult to ignore the close parallels between the Covenant of Mayors and Kyoto Protocol. The former is a localized version of the latter, but has been remodelled to avoid the ratification issues of China and the US since signatories must agree to implement SEAP. A key difference is that the Covenant of Mayors mandates a uniform reduction level for all regions, whereas the Kyoto Protocol varies by country.

It appears that the growing necessity for regional action is a response to inadequate implementation of nationwide environmental policies. This trend has expanded on a global basis, with the Western Climate Initiative acting as a sister movement for states and provinces in North America.

Given the various local and national promises to ensure the future sustainability of our world, it is hard to discern the effectiveness of such policies. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released the fifth edition of Global Environmental Outlook last year, along with several alarming findings concerning the progress of global environmental initiatives. UNEP analyzed the 90 most significant internationally-agreed goals and found that substantial improvement had been achieved in only four.

There are several factors that may be underpinning our lacklustre developments in sustainability. Firstly, environmental sustainability relies on economic resources to support renewable energy subsidies and research and development. We could think of it in terms of a Maslovian hierarchy, with economic stability forming the basis of the pyramid followed by poverty eradication and environmental goals at more advanced stages of development. Given the recent economic crises in the United States and Europe, this is a hindrance to combating climate change.

It could also be the case that excessive ambition amongst political figures has led to the establishment of unrealistic goals. Moreover, one might ponder what individual incentives are for achieving these sustainable goals, or conversely repercussions for failing to do so. It is highly unlikely that those responsible for legislating these targets will still be in office by 2020 and hence it becomes an issue of whom owns accountability for fulfilling long-term objectives.

Nonetheless, the Covenant of Mayors has already demonstrated areas of success in its infant stages, suggesting that it may have better success than its predecessors of climate change policy. The Benchmark of Excellence is an outlet for cities to share their own proven methods of sustainable action. For instance, Agueda has distributed electrical bicycles throughout the city for free public use. Residents can use their smartphones to find the nearest bicycle and then proceed to book it.

For government officials, the key issue now is how to ensure the return on past promises. Cities must also continue to transfer technological knowledge amongst one another, as emphasized by the Kyoto Protocol. The European Renewable Energy Council recently stated that the EU is on track to achieve its 20 percent reduction in emissions target. This is promising news, but at the same time cities cannot afford to become complacent about climate action.  

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