COP27’s Missed Opportunity: Failing to Engage Cities

November 02, 2022
13 min read
Photo credit: rafapress /
"Nations talk, cities act” is the motto under which cities have become visible in global climate policy over the past decade.

While national governments have repeatedly failed to agree and deliver on joint mitigation, adaptation, and financing goals, cities and their global networks—such as C40 Cities and ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability)—have proven to be more cooperative and pragmatic, sharing best practices and collectively driving innovation to limit climate change and its impacts.

The readiness of cities to act has been progressively recognized and harnessed by the UN climate process. Since the 2010 Cancun Agreements, which declared local authorities governmental stakeholders under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the annual Convention of the Parties (COP) has included ministerial-mayoral dialogues and other formats to strengthen local-to-national collaboration, as well as a “cities day” to give visibility to local challenges and solutions. The 2015 Paris Agreement further consolidated this trend by redefining global climate governance as institutional arrangements around the UNFCCC that rally both state and non-state actors behind the shared goal of limiting global warming to 1.5° C, a paradigm shift underpinned by the launch of the Marrakech Partnership in 2016. Last year’s Glasgow Climate Pact set another milestone by highlighting the critical role of local communities in the fight against climate change and calling on parties to further integrate mitigation and adaptation into local and regional planning.

Considering this evolving momentum around urban climate action in the UNFCCC process, it came as a surprise that the official agenda for COP27, to be held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh between November 7 and 17 of this year, did not include a day dedicated to urban solutions when it was first announced. In response to a petition, human settlements and transport sessions have been introduced under the conference’s mitigation workstream. Yet, the overall agenda does not promise the same level of engagement with local actors and solutions as seen at previous summits.

Cities are central to the world’s ambition to halve global carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.

This setback is due to reasons related to Egypt’s political agenda for COP27 and its poor decentralization and democracy record. In contrast to previous COPs that mainly focused on raising mitigation goals to limit climate change, the Egyptian presidency is prioritizing adaptation to climate impacts and access to finance for developing countries. Cities, best known for their pioneering mitigation actions and less for their resiliency efforts, seem to have been largely left off the agenda. For Egypt, a highly centralized country where municipal authorities have little decision-making power, it was more relevant to give visibility to issues like water management and agricultural adaptation. At a deeper level, the sidelining of local actors and solutions is also linked to the country’s poor civil rights and democracy record under President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, which has set the tone for the conference.

The failure to properly engage cities, local, and civic stakeholders in COP27 is a missed opportunity. It has disrupted the much-needed transformation of the UN climate process toward becoming more inclusive of non-state actors, and toward adjusting to an urban reality in which climate battles will be won or lost in cities. But this disruption should not deviate from the path that has been carved out over the past decade. Moving forward, UN climate conferences will need to engage cities more, not less, to keep the 1.5° C goal alive and effectively support the adaptation of the most vulnerable people and communities through a just and democratic transition.

Cities Leading the Race to Zero

Cities are central to the world’s ambition to halve global carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. Though urban areas account for around 70 percent of emissions, mainly from buildings and transport, they are also heavily affected by climate change and have become leaders in policy innovation to slow its progress. Local authorities are actively driving mitigation in key sectors such as the energy-efficient retrofitting of buildings, renewable energy, the transition to low-carbon and shared transport, and the circular economy. Large enough to test new solutions and small enough to discard unsuccessful pilots, they have become the world’s climate laboratories. Initiatives like the EU’s Net Zero Cities Mission recognize and build on this potential. Supporting over 100 European cities in achieving climate neutrality by 2030—two decades ahead of the wider bloc’s 2050 target—the mission elevates cities to become leaders on the European Green Deal.

Cities of all sizes are putting in place climate action plans that are in alignment with the Paris Agreement or that pursue more ambitious goals. Generally, these local climate plans are developed with the support of and adhere to the criteria of city networks such as C40, ICLEI, and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Energy and Climate. But there still is little integration with regional, national, and global climate planning. The city track of the UN-backed Race to Zero Campaign that unites non-state actors behind the 2030 goal has been important to connect local net-zero ambitions with UNFCCC targets and ensure their robustness. But to be fully effective it cannot continue to run parallel to national negotiations.

Urban climate action and planning need to systematically feed into national policy and the Nationally Determine Contributions (NDCs) that countries commit to under the UNFCCC. Urban mitigation actions have enormous potential to enhance countries’ NDCs. In 2019, only 23 out of 160 NDCs had calculated urban climate mitigation into their targets and measures, a gap that offers a much-needed chance for countries to update their NDCs, homework that many governments left undone for COP26 and were supposed to do for COP27.

Lamentably Egypt has crossed out these plans, announcing that it wants to shift its focus on raising ambition to implementing existing targets. As the country’s minister for international cooperation Rania Al Mashat put it: “We want this COP to be about the practicalities: what is it that we need to do to operationalize the pledges into implementation?” While more financial and capacity support for the delivery of current pledges is critical, especially in developing countries, we have no time to take a pause from stepping up targets. As a UNEP report from October warns, implementation of current pledges would lead to a best estimate of 2.4 to 2.6° C warming by the end of the century, with far worse impacts such as more extreme heat waves and melting ice sheets, than if warming was curbed at 1.5° C.

As climate pioneers, cities can help boost both national target-setting and implementation this decade. But for this to happen, the UNFCCC and national governments must fully integrate the efforts of non-state actors. A first step has been taken by countries like France, Spain, and the United States that have started to include city government representatives in the delegations they send to COP. But cities need more than “a seat at the table.” Further integration must also happen in implementation, monitoring, and reporting processes. COP27’s emphasis on the implementation of pledges would have been a chance to push this issue, for example by building on the relaunch of the UNFCCC Global Climate Action Portal at COP26 to include progress tracking of non-state actors.

Stepping Up Urban Adaptation and Resilience

Much of the international draw to urban climate action has been about cities’ capacity to innovate to lower carbon emissions. Large, wealthy cities from the global north have championed this domain, but cities from the global south that are at the forefront of loss and damages caused by extreme heat, drought, flooding, and sea-level rise are catching up, becoming increasingly active and vocal climate governors on adaptation and resilience issues. Examples include the city of Freetown in Sierra Leone, which is leading efforts to raise awareness around the heat emergency faced by African cities and to connect local leaders to formulate adaptation strategies; and Chinese cities that are pioneering nature-based solutions to build up resilience to urban flooding under the government’s Sponge City Program. The UN-backed Cities Race to Resilience Campaign—the smaller sibling campaign to the Cities Race to Zero—signals the broader uptake of adaptation challenges and solutions by local leaders.

Placing a long overdue focus on adaptation, COP27 should have given more visibility to the challenges and successes of urban resilience. African cities that are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts and suffering from rapid urbanization, placing additional stress on urban infrastructure and services, would have been the first to benefit. But the Egyptian presidency’s approach to adaptation is a sectoral one and mostly focused on agriculture and water systems. While these issues have received too little attention at past COPs and deserve a place on the agenda, they need to be addressed in a cross-sectoral manner that is mindful of rural-urban linkages.

Building up climate resilience is a complex process that requires interconnected solutions to tackle resource scarcity in key areas like water, energy, and food. Further, with estimates suggesting that 80 percent of all food will be consumed in cities by 2050 and that 685 million people in cities will face a decline in freshwater availability by mid-century, we cannot achieve food and water resource resilience without taking urbanization processes into account. In the age of climate emergency, sustainable urban planning and governance is not only about ensuring that urban infrastructure and services can withstand climate risks, but also about the resilient management of the resources and ecosystems beyond a city’s boundaries that sustain urban dwellers.

Adaptation and resilience strategies must also center vulnerable groups and communities hardest hit by climate impacts. Top-down national adaptation planning and policies, favored by centralized regimes like the Egyptian one, are bound to perform poorly on protecting and empowering vulnerable peoples. Effective adaptation plans must systematically integrate local and city governments—first in line when it comes to listening and responding to those in need—and provide cities with adequate financing, capacity, and decision-making power.

Vulnerable groups within countries are disproportionately affected by climate change and the benefits and burdens of climate action are not automatically equitably distributed across societies.

Toward a Multi-Level Climate Finance Agenda

Cities’ efforts for transformational and just climate adaptation are severely hampered by financial limitations. Only 10 percent of overall climate finance directed toward cities currently goes to adaptation and resilience efforts. This shortcoming is representative of the overall urban climate finance gap. Climate finance flows for cities reached an estimated average of $384 billion in 2017–2018; far below the estimated $4.5 to 5.4 trillion needed each year until 2030 to support low-carbon and climate-resilient urban development and infrastructure solutions. The coronavirus crisis has worsened this scenario, with many cities suffering revenue losses from sources like transport fees, increased health and social expenditures, and having to put on hold spending for innovative climate-smart infrastructure.

Cities face major financial, institutional, and political barriers to unlock climate finance. The most common barriers are budget constraints, high debt and low creditworthiness, limited or no borrowing capacity, little capacity to raise finance and prepare project proposals for investment, and few bankable projects of sufficient size. To respond faster and at scale to the climate emergency and its economic, social, and health impacts, cities require more support to access finance, develop innovative, workable, and investor-ready funding models, and create investment-friendly environments for climate finance to flow to the local level.

National governments, international organizations, and financial institutions have a key role to play in providing technical and capacity support and channeling finance to the local level. However, forums like COP are rarely used to advance a multi-level climate finance agenda. Egypt’s COP27 is bound to be no different. Although Cairo has moved climate finance to the top of the summit’s agenda, it is taking a project-led approach to finance that is geared toward signing deals for large-scale energy and infrastructure projects—many of them in Egypt—during the two-week summit. Urban climate finance, which is fragmented into small-scale projects that tend to be about climate-friendly upgrading of existing infrastructure rather than new projects, is of no interest to this approach.

But the city climate finance gap and the challenges of urban project bundling and investment aggregation cannot be ignored. Steps toward a multi-level and multi-stakeholder climate finance agenda that help local authorities unlock investments more easily are urgently needed. International organizations like the World Bank have started to address this problem through programs like the City Creditworthiness Initiative. In turn, city networks and other local stakeholders are developing innovative financing strategies and new models of blended finance through initiatives like the City-Business Climate Alliance.

These emerging yet still isolated initiatives call for more coordination and scaling. The UN Climate Change High-Level Champions, who lead the Race to Zero and Race to Resilience Campaigns, would be ideal advocates for a multi-stakeholder and multi-level climate finance agenda.

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Global and Local Climate Justice

Egypt is hosting COP27 under the banner of global climate justice and of standing up for the financial needs of African and other developing countries that are most affected by the climate crisis but have contributed least to it. However, by framing climate justice along a north-south axis and in terms of the differentiated financial responsibilities of developed and developing nations, the summit risks sidelining climate justice issues that play out at the local societal level. Vulnerable groups within countries are disproportionately affected by climate change and the benefits and burdens of climate action are not automatically equitably distributed across societies.

Hosting COP27 on African soil would have been a unique opportunity to engage and listen to some of the communities most vulnerable to the climate crisis. But the setup of the summit largely denies these groups a voice. While restrictions on civic access to the negotiations and the curtailing of protests have been recorded at several COPs, the level of control expected in Sharm el-Sheikh will likely exceed these. The Egyptian regime’s poor record of democracy and freedom of speech is echoed in government statements about a designated “facility adjacent to the conference center” where activists can protest, and in civic organizations critical of the government having been prevented from registering for COP27. The failure of the COP27 presidency to provide affordable travel and accommodation options to budget-strapped young and indigenous peoples associations, civil society groups, and NGOs will further make this one of most exclusive UN climate conferences, endangering its outcomes and success. Given the socioeconomically uneven impacts of the climate crisis, effective responses require meaningful inputs from non-state and grassroots actors that can scrutinize and put pressure on government negotiations.

Just and democratic societal transitions are the bedrock of global climate justice, which needs to be done at both the global and local levels. Last year’s COP26 made some headway on this front with the declaration on Supporting the Conditions for a Just Transition Internationally. Moving beyond the traditional focus of just transition discourses on redistributive measures to protect workers and regions reliant on carbon-intensive industries, the declaration advocates for procedural and systemic justice processes that seek to counter the social, racial, and gender inequalities of the climate crisis and their exacerbation through socially blind climate policies.

Stronger engagement of cities at COP27 would have been a productive way to advance and consolidate this broadened climate justice and just transition agenda. Cities are at the forefront of efforts to harmonize ecological and equity policies, and of experimenting with procedural and transformative climate justice processes that engage socially, economically, culturally, politically, or otherwise marginalized groups in decision making and that address underlying systemic inequalities. Examples include new participatory mechanisms that go beyond traditional townhall-style meetings to engage groups typically left out of decision-making, increasing portions of energy-efficient social housing, and delivering affordable low-carbon shared transport solutions in low-income neighborhoods.

Back on Track for Dubai?

To avoid losing the momentum of the past decade around urban climate action in the UN climate process, cities and their global advocacy networks need to make sure that COP28 to be held in Dubai returns cities to a more central place. Highly invested in green city planning, the United Arab Emirates are likely to showcase urban innovations. The challenge will be to give visibility to sustainable urban development pathways beyond the high-tech and megaprojects favored by the Emirates, and to give voice to the plethora of actors that need to be engaged to ensure transitions are not only environmentally sustainable but also socially responsible. We cannot afford another UN climate summit that is blind to the urban reality we live in and to how climate justice plays out in cities.