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Urban Legends: Cities lead on resilience but face a glass ceiling

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Major cities will meet in Paris later this month ahead of the COP 21 climate summit in December. It’s clear that cities have a leadership role, are already joined up and that Mayors are doing the sophisticated climate diplomacy needed to build an ambitious outcome.

Cities and regions have a crucial role in demonstrating that that the world cannot afford to take big climate risks – global warming must be kept below the 2 degrees threshold necessary to prevent the most dangerous climatic changes. Otherwise, the serious climate impacts, including extreme weather events which have increased by 60% in the last 30 years, will put the future of European cities in jeopardy.

European cities are leading on resilience action. Over 100 EU cities have already signed up to the Mayor’s Adapt initiative since it was founded last year. The initiative is implemented within the Covenant of Mayors and, crucially, involves drawing up concrete local adaptation plans. However, cities don’t always have the right decision making powers needed for resilience building (e.g. on infrastructure planning, public safety, flood management or public utilities) and guidance from higher levels of government is often lacking. Capacity and information gaps prevent many cities from developing effective resilience plans. In the face of budgetary cuts over the past years, many cities have had to focus on short-term priorities rather than invest in climate resilience. In short, European cities lack many of the tools, budget and powers needed to become fully climate resilient.

E3G’s new report 'Cities at Risk' is unique in analysing how climate risk is being managed in Europe and locating the role cities play. It demonstrates how much of the responsibility falls on cities because of major gaps in risk management at other levels. National governments need to provide greater capacity and budgetary support to cities. They also need to lead a discussion on who is in charge of managing climate risk, and who is responsible for covering climate damage. The EU has substantially increased its support to cities on resilience, especially on funding opportunities, but is constrained by weak support from national governments.

All actors will need to work together to manage the risks Europe faces. That includes the private sector, especially the insurance and real estate industries where a proactive, transparent discussion is still lacking. There needs to be a duty on companies to disclose the physical and economic risks from climate change to their shareholders and operations. We’re just at the beginning of starting to understand the complex system risks climate change poses to cities and we need a public debate about who is in charge of managing them.

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