Implementing Paris: Cities and climate innovation

As two weeks of climate talks kick off in Paris, world leaders are looking to avoid the failures of the 2009 Copenhagen summit. The futility of that round of negotiations has been attributed to its top-down approach—with CO2 emissions reductions pushed down to unwilling countries, ultimately scuttling a binding agreement.

Still, the past seven years have seen progress. Specifically, as a recent status report from the C40 network makes clear, cities have been key actors in advancing policies targeted at climate change mitigation. This should be no surprise, considering major global cities are forecast to be most impacted by rising global temperatures. It’s promising then that this year’s summit begins amid an increased recognition of the role of cities, and of the public, private, and civic networks that exist within them.

Copenhagen succeeded in revealing this groundswell of climate action despite the lack of binding emissions targets. With last year’s formation of the Compact of Mayors—now comprised of 165 cities with 234 million residents—the U.N. signaled the importance of cities in delivering sustainable policy. In advance of this month’s summit, 10 member cities, representing 58 million people and $3 trillion in GDP, released climate action plans that serve as models for this delivery, including commitments to deep emissions reductions, requirements for data collection and transparency, and mandatory annual reporting. In the United States, cities are delivering an all-of-the-above approach—everything from the Washington, D.C. water authority’s large-scale investment in a waste-to-energy project, to New York City’s retrofit accelerator project aimed at reducing the environmental impact of large buildings, to Portland’s recent recommitment to an urban growth boundary that promotes density over sprawl even as the region is forecast to grow by 400,000 residents over the next 20 years. 

Yet cities must do more than rethink their built environment or enact more efficient transportation policies. To meet needed emissions reductions will require better technology than is available today. This is why this week’s announcement of Mission Innovation, a climate research plan led by Bill Gates, is so promising. Twenty countries around the world, including the United States and China, have all committed to doubling R&D investments in clean technology over the next five years. In parallel, a group of private investors including Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, committed to backstopping investments in these countries with additional capital, and funding high-risk, early-stage energy innovation projects that can pave the way to deep CO2 emissions reduction.

But invention does not happen evenly across the world and these innovations will overwhelmingly be designed and deployed in a few leading edge cities. Brookings research has found that, like many R&D-intensive industries, clean energy research is highly concentrated: 39 of the 58 highest-impact U.S. clean-tech firms are headquartered in just four metro areas characterized by vibrant clean economy clusters: Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles. The success of these firms can be attributed to the mix of major research assets, such as MIT, Caltech, or the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, with an entrepreneurial culture and state regulatory environments in California and Massachusetts that incentivize clean technology research.  

But even beyond these clusters, U.S. cities are pursuing climate innovation and experimentation. Examples include Chattanooga’s city-wide fiber network that could make it a leader in smart grid technology; Milwaukee’s Water Council project which brings together public, private, and academic sectors to advance water efficiency; or Pittsburgh’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon, which has already spun off a promising new battery technology company, Aquion Energy.   

The challenges presented by climate change demand this type of approach, combining macro policy making, institutional investment, and metro problem solving. National governments and supranational institutions must aggressively mobilize political will and international regulations toward mitigating the risks—through actions such as eliminating fossil fuel subsidies or adopting carbon pricing. But the impact of those actions will require an equal measure of concrete innovations in technology and policy that will be designed, financed, and delivered by networks of public, private and civic leaders at the local level.