As the second week of global climate negotiations gets underway, the world waits for national leaders to make meaningful commitments to save the planet. But it’s become clear that cities, not countries, are leading the way in the fight against climate change.

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There’s a good reason for that: the world’s cities account for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Currently just over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that figure is set to rise to 70 percent by 2050. Cities play a huge role in the creation of climate change. But they’re also vital in terms of its mitigation: their concentrated densities of services and population present an amazing opportunity for huge efficiency savings, without compromise on productivity or quality of life.

More and more, cities are acting on that opportunity while national governments founder. And nowhere is this more obvious than at the climate talks.

Why Cities Have Been So Much Quicker To Act

One key group that’s spurred many city governments to act is called the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. The organization, now ten years old, was set up by cities to provide a forum in which to share ideas and experiences in cleaning up their acts. The aim is to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks, while increasing the health, wellbeing and economic opportunities of urban citizens.”

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At the most basic level, it’s all about information sharing. And last week, mayors from many of the member cities of C40 gathered in the Hôtel de Ville in Paris to do just that: share recent experiences, and how they relate to the negotiations taking place at the UN’s Conference of Parties. One thing was clear: whether national governments act or not, these cities are already deeply embroiled in the fight against climate change.

A C40 tour of the Office of Emergency Management in New York, with the OEM’s commander Dave Lewis (right) and Ken Livingstone the then-mayor of London, in 2007. AP Photos/Bebeto Matthews.

The numbers themselves are staggering. In a new report published today, C40 and the engineering consultancy firm Arup explain that since the 15th Conference of the Parties that was held in Copenhagen in 2009, member cities have undertaken 10,000 different initiatives to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Around half of those are city-wide schemes that affect each and every citizen.

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“When heads of state descended on Paris earlier this week, they did so with a much better outlook than heading into Copenhagen,” said former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the C40 board president, at the forum last Friday. “Much of that is a result of the work of cities.” The interventions vary wildly in cost and scope—but between them these cities are laser-focused on becoming green.

Make No Small Plans

Look around these cities, and you’ll see plenty of smaller-scale initiatives at work. In recent years, for instance, many cities—including New York and London, but also places like Rio de Janeiro—have opened extensive bike sharing schemes. Meanwhile, a scheme in Melbourne called 1200 Buildings aims to increase the energy efficiency of the city’s commercial buildings by 38 percent by 2020, simply by helping owners assess the efficiency of their buildings and implement the most straightforward improvements.

A London bike share employee in July, 2015. AP Photo/Matt Dunham.

Other schemes attempt to change governance practices, in order to make emissions reductions non-negotiable. In Bogotá, for instance, five-lane highways once dedicated entirely to all kinds of traffic now have only one lane for cars—the remaining four provide exclusive access for one each of pedestrians, cyclists, high-speed buses, and local buses. In San Francisco, the city’s new Existing Commercial Buildings Energy Performance Ordinance puts firm limits on the energy performance of non-residential buildings.

And then there are the more audacious plans.

Paris, for instance, is now using its River Seine as a source for cooling. With a 44-mile network of pipes and an intricate system of heat exchangers, the city is able to cool five million square meters of public buildings around the city, including the Louvre and the National Assembly. During the forum last week, we were told that the Hôtel de Ville would join the list early next year. It’s a huge project, and an even larger triumph.

An Informal Union of Cities

Member cities are rightly envious of such interventions—and they admit as much. “I’ve been embarrassed by seeing just what Paris is doing,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson at the event. “[But] we’ve got a big river in London. It’s probably even bigger and colder than the Seine. We haven’t been able to match Paris yet, but we’ll go back and emulate it.” It’s more about sharing, not stealing, ideas.

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That spirit of collaboration is pervasive throughout the entire syndicate. During the forum, Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa of Tshwane proudly announced that his city was the first sub-Saharan African settlement to boast compressed natural gas buses, which are already found in many cities in the C40. And Lord Mayor Clover Moore from Sydney explained how a trip to Los Angeles inspired her to install LED street lighting across the entire city, which now saves the Australian city hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

There’s power to collective organizing too, according to member cities. Johnson said that after a C40 summit held earlier this year, a number of cities have been lobbying to drive down the cost of electric buses. They realized that together, they formed a market capable of absorbing as many as 40,000 of the new electric vehicles. By joining forces, the consortium has managed to bargain down prices by at least 10 percent in the space of six months. “It’s cooperation, working with the market,” he said.

The Next 26,000 Projects Are On The Way

There’s more to be done. In the new report, C40 and Arup note that cities are just scratching the surface: of the list of possible interventions, they may have implemented 10,000—but 26,820 remain little more than ideas. The report also gathers together 2,300 of the most high-impact interventions that are yet to be implemented, and suggests that, if deployed, they could save a massive 450 mega-tonnes of CO2 by 2020. For context, that’s equivalent to the annual emissions of the entire United Kingdom.

The cities need some help to make it happen, mostly in the form of funding—these interventions will cost $6.8 billion to roll out—and technical support. But it will also require co-operation from more than just fellow urbanists. The mayors seem to agree. “I wish national governments would take notice of the work [cities] are doing. We’re their best allies,” said Mayor Clover Moore from Sydney. “Work with us, and we can help you keep global warming below 2°C. But if you don’t want to work with us, don’t be an impediment.”

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It looks like those mayoral wishes may be answered. Yesterday, the Lima-Paris Action Agenda announced a five-year vision in which national states and regions will work more closely with cities to fight climate change. It will “align local actions and commitments around collective ambitions by 2020, thereby making rapid urbanization and regional dynamics an opportunity for massive change with environmental, health and economic benefits.”

It remains to be seen how effective that will be. But in the meantime, members of the C40 seem happy to pursue the fight alone. “It’s not easy to lead,” admitted Bloomberg. “An awful lot of people are skeptics of what we do. But if we don’t do this, the world is in a precarious position.”

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Images by Joe deSousa, Joe deSousa and August Brill under Creative Commons license