Non-state actors are increasingly involved in issues surrounding climate change. Cities are recognised as international actors and have the capacity and authority to represent their interests against, along or beyond those of their national governments. Cities therefore have (or can have) a defined foreign policy, particularly in terms of security, development, economy, culture, cooperation (networks) and representation. Despite being relegated to observer status in the UN system, cities conduct noteworthy diplomatic activities for combating global warming. One of the reasons is that land-use planning, waste management, transportation issues and energy consumption are local in nature and have to be addressed at this level. Most cities engaged in climate diplomacy do so on at least one of the following three levels:
(1) Through a collective position: This form of climate diplomacy is conducted through various city networks, like the C40 Climate Leadership Group (C40) and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), where cities band together to push for a common agenda. The numerous declarations, pacts and the resolve demonstrated by city networks often serve as a reminder that a consensus and willingness to seriously address and tackle climate-related issues is possible. Perhaps the greatest contribution and benefit of climate diplomacy by cities in networks is the strength and encouragement it provides to member cities to start working on some of the climate challenges in their own capacity with the help of one another.
(2) Through interaction and engagement with each other: The role of cities in contributing to GHG as well as the disproportionate burden of climate change impacts are well appreciated by now. There is also an understanding that cities follow a similar urbanisation trajectory, often facing similar challenges. The example of Bangkok and Yokohama’s city-to-city cooperation on sustainable urban development shows how Yokohama’s Partnership of Resources and Technologies (Y-PORT) initiative serves as a brand to promote and utilize the city’s environmental technologies. Some cities also choose to engage their counterparts directly through various events and symposiums, for example Singapore’s World Cities Summit initiative.
(3) Within national borders: Capital cities are able to directly engage and work with state governments on certain issues. Climate change and sustainable development are areas that overlap both city and national administrations’ agendas. Diplomacy at this level happens when city officials and administrations push for certain agendas with regard to climate change and the environment. Another dimension of climate diplomacy by cities within the national context could be with other secondary cities within the country. For example, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority is known to have good relations with other Thai cities like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, which it engages on various platforms with regard to climate change and urban development issues.
How can climate diplomacy by cities be strengthened?
While cities have taken the initiative of tackling the issue of climate and have started engaging in climate diplomacy, there is still a long way to go. Some potential avenues for sharpening their effectiveness and to become better practitioners of climate diplomacy are listed below.
• Recommendations for city mayors and city officials: City officials should institutionalise a city climate diplomacy agenda or an international relations policy on climate change. Cities should train their representative agencies and officials to tap international climate finance. Also, cities’ implementing agencies, honed through years of experience and expertise, should be trained to double up as climate diplomats for cities.
• Recommendation for city networks: City networks can strengthen the system of grouping cities and local governments in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. Concrete agendas and plans can make the appeal of networks greater for cities and local administrations. Networks can help cities make a plan, preferably with ranked priorities, in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation needs. City networks should also equip city leaders and implementing agencies to focus not only on sharing best practices but also the challenges and the lessons from less successful but progressive initiatives.
• Recommendation for national governments: Relevant national agencies should work more closely and potentially train city officials and local leaders. Rather than letting cities conduct their diplomacy entirely in their own capacity, the aligning of agendas and interests might help both cities and national governments in the international sphere. There is potential that city diplomacy could possibly open doors to national level engagements and bilateral relations, or vice versa. Being able to switch between national and local/city diplomacy could open up numerous new opportunities and avenues for climate diplomacy.
This article is based on the Policy Brief Cities and Climate Diplomacy by Gianna Gayle Herrera Amul and Maxim Shrestha, Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS). For more detailed insights on the topic, please read the authors' discussion paper Cities and Climate Diplomacy in the Asia Pacific.