The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) connects 90 of the world’s greatest cities. Created and led by cities, C40 is focused on tackling climate change and driving urban action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks, while increasing the health, wellbeing and economic opportunities of urban citizens.


The ambition of C40 is not unlike that of the SEA20 initiative, an international forum for the world’s foremost Smart and Ecologically-Ambitious marine cities. In a similar setting, SEA20 enables dialogue between its stakeholders with the aim to create a supremely efficient, ecologically sound, digitally connected and collaborative marine ecosystem.


We spoke to Brendan Shane, Programme Director for C40’s Deadline 2020 campaign, to learn more about the initiative’s origins and its approach to these enormous challenges, about their journey in engaging cities and the criteria they set for ensuring that the C40 cities reach their targets.



What was the impetus for the creation of the C40 initiative? When did the initiative come into being? Can you please describe its formative stages?


"C40 actually began as C20. At the time, Mayor Kenneth Livingstone of London was looking at the G20, seeing nations do nothing about climate change going back 15 years. So, he wanted to bring together some of the biggest cities in the world, which at the time meant largest and richest cities. London being first, then New York, Paris and others – very developed cities with the eye that these cities need to act on climate even if the nations aren’t. They have a lot of power to drive decision-making and to innovate for climate solutions.


It then became the C40 about 2008 or 2010 when it merged with the Clinton Climate Initiative and made this very deliberate effort of not focusing only with the richest cities of the world, but strong, equal representation of developing country cities. They added twenty cities from developing countries and the southern hemisphere. The idea was that those are the cities that are future, the ones that are going to grow and determine how we succeed or fail on climate. From there it has now grown to be ninety-six members with still a fairly equal representation of developed and developing country cities, generally the largest cities of the world."



How many people do you have to leave out? How many cities come knocking and want to be part of this?


"There is some fluctuation. This year actually it will drop from 96 to probably 90 or 92. Because cities have maybe had a political change, or they’ve had a certain amount of political upheavals or other problems. They are basically not delivering on high-level climate ambition. And then next year a certain number of cities that are at the door would be admitted. Around a hundred is where we would likely sit because we are ultimately an NGO with a certain limited budget, limited staffing, capacity that can really provide the higher contact, high touch service that we like to do. It really engages both mayor level and technical level, so that projects and policies get political support and move to implementation."



How have decision makers and other stakeholders responded to the initiative?


"Quite well. It is only really ten to twelve years old at all. And in reality the current growth to this size only began six to eight years ago with Michael Bloomberg, taking over as chair you get a significant increase in the size of the organisation and profile. It continues to increase.  


At the Paris talks, there was a real inflection point. Before then it was not necessarily clear what role cities would play on the global landscape for climate. It was a nation-state led process. You had a thousand mayors and cities show up at COP, they held their own meeting. Many of these mayors left this meeting quite clear that the nations are not going to achieve their goals unless they are engaging the cities to implement the solutions for one and hopefully the cities are in the position to act faster in many instances than the nations are.  


So, since then it has been a continuing trajectory of greater level of recognition, more direct engagement with the UN process. It has involved outside processes of planning for climate change and implementing at the city level. It is really a lot of energy and excitement, which I think is well placed, clearly in the US. Prior to working globally on Deadline 2020, I worked on US and Canada out of Washington. Mayors in the US have been some of the most outspoken leaders on the need to continue and maintain the commitments made under prior administrations."



Where do other sub-nation-state actors fit in?


"Clearly, the cities cannot do it alone. Nations still have to act and then regional, state or province governments have to act as well. The private sector is often the one that is doing the bulk of the scaling and the work. There has been a very concerted effort to raise the profile of cities, but it has to be in concert with regional leaders and the private sector. It really does all those parties working together. In the US, that has been happening sort of in a vacuum with governors, mayors, and CEOs are working together how to move forward. In most other countries, they still have the national government as a party to work with. I think the most exciting things to see is that cities in Scandinavian countries, where a member city has a set a net-zero, carbon-neutral goal for 2050, a really ambitious path and then it is supported by the national government. They are working in lockstep. That is where you want to get to."



What are some of the main issues or ways of getting cities excited?


"It is widely variable. The early leaders and mayors, they totally buy in and they totally get in, whether it is for reasons of altruism or economic development such as in the case of a Copenhagen or a Portland. They just tie things together.  


In other cases, we still have less uptake on the straight up greenhouse gas, climate concern and really strong focus from local leaders on the protection and resilience side. They are literally afraid for their population and survival.


The case just keeps on building. Early on, they were fighting hard for recognition, to get a seat at the table so to speak. We are essentially a coalition of the willing, the cities are invited in because they have demonstrated an interest in providing that political, technical or financial leadership. The idea is to take those who want to lead and allow them to lead more effectively, to grow that critical mass of regional representation and political power and move forward with that.  


We are not trying to convince cities. We have had cases of where there is no there there. That is not a city that should be a member of our organisation.  


It has gotten easier across the board. For instance, in the US and Canada now with Deadline 2020 initiative, we have cities such as Edmonton, Alberta and Houston, Texas that have now made commitments. You have the heart of the oil industry in the United States and Canada saying that they recognise that this transition has to happen and that it is coming.


You see leadership on the city level, while for the rest of Texas it is just not there. Texas is in one sense the heart of oil, but in another the largest renewable energy market in the US. When are we going to see bigger flip from energy companies there? They are all indicating an interest in renewables and climate change. But we want to see them double down and start foot a business model and interest in a cleaner business model."



What were the motivating factors for collating the Deadline 2020 report?


"Deadline 2020 came straight out of the Paris Climate Accord. Going into Paris the most vulnerable nations were very clear that we need an agreement and we need it to be not a two-degree. It has to be a 1.5-degree agreement, we have serious problems and even 1.5-degree warming is a major risk for our countries. So, we got to language out of Paris that said that we should try our utmost to get to 1.5.  


Our research group then did the Deadline 2020 technical analysis that showed how to stay within a 1.5-degree carbon budget a certain amount of carbon was available, our cities make up a certain amount of the global emission and this is the pathway that you need to be on to keep us at 1.5. Then we plotted out if cities aggressively adopt measures, climate action, how much of these necessary reductions they could provide.


They came up with topline numbers, zero carbon by 2050. You have to get there on a more aggressive curve. This is not a straight line. You start to reduce emissions immediately. That is the background of the Deadline 2020 report. The analysis showed that you have to have a plan in place by 2020 and then you have to be making immediate policy decisions, purchasing and investment decisions. This way by 2030 you have started to see significant reductions and if you wait past 2020 to start the downward trend more aggressively, it becomes basically impossible. There are those who argue that it is impossible already, but this is trying to see the glass as half full and be somewhat optimistic.  


Just one year after Paris we had our Global Meeting (only happens every two or three years), which happened two years after Paris, Mayor Paes of Rio was the head of the steering committee, Mayor Hidalgo of Rio were flipping right at that time, they adopted this goal for C40. By the end of 2020, every member city and region has to have a plan to get to zero carbon by 2050 and set that as our benchmark. Since then, it has been a matter of figuring out.  


This was ahead of the curve. There still are not that many organisations across regional or corporations that have firmly committed to a 1.5 scenario, there are a bunch more that are around 2 and there are others that just make generous statements about limiting, moving to net zero, but not being specific about how aggressive they want to be."



How easy is it to communicate in terms of temperatures – even leaving aside conversions between Celsius and Fahrenheit?


"Here we are at a true tipping point. For a long time, it has been a communications challenge. I think since this crazy year of fires and storms and the IPCC reports. It is actually getting better. For example, Climate Central out of Princeton does excellent communications on these topics.  


Overall, the narrative is changing. We started with global warming and that was what it was for the 1980s and 90s. Now, we’ve arrived at climate change. Most importantly, the basic concept that global warming means stronger fires and storms is setting in."       



Enabling the relevant conversations with the right stakeholders brings cities a step forward when facing such an enormous challenge like climate change. It is inspiring to see that The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group has succeeded in creating a framework that enables dialogue and drives change for the C40 member cities.


Join us in a future instalment as we discuss C40’s targets in more depth, as well as their take on marine development.