Recently global leaders met in Glasgow for COP26 to once again try to combat climate change. The meeting was the first major opportunity for the world to reflect on and assess its commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement, and it was widely seen as the last chance to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change.
Despite what feels like an endless string of climate summits and international conferences, humanity is not much closer to curbing climate change. Scientists are pessimistic that global temperatures can remain within 2.0C of pre-industrial levels, and activists have characterized meetings like COP26 as talk shops. The lack of progress is particularly frustrating given that scientists have widely agreed on the effectiveness of certain policies. This discrepancy highlights that climate change is as much a political problem as a technical one, and misaligned political incentives can derail consensus solutions. So how do we break out of this cycle?
Climate change does not stop at national borders, which has forced us to attack it from the top via global cooperation. However, the potential of bottom-up climate solutions has been neglected. Local communities, cities, and subnational groups have demonstrated their commitment to sustainability. When former president Donlald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, three governors and 30 mayors banded together to maintain America’s promises.
Local decision-making is flexible and responsive, and the battle against a warming climate will be increasingly waged at the local level, in the world’s ballooning cities. Over 70% of carbon emissions from final energy use already come from cities, and this will grow as people and economic activity further urbanize over the next several decades. Local efforts also pressure higher-level leaders to act. This bottom-up approach aligns with academic research, which suggests that “devolved governance” can respond better to immediate needs, and practical experience, such as how political decentralization in China helped spur economic growth nationally. More importantly, local decision-making may allow us to bypass the political deadlock at the top.
Charter Cities and Climate Change
Charter cities are new cities with new rules. Through public-private partnerships, governments can build new cities in special reform zones empowered with greater local control and better institutions. These cities allow governments to test innovative decentralized governance models and offer citizens a choice to live in what could be a much better environment than the rest of the country. Charter cities also bypass drawn out political negotiations for reform at the national- or international-level, accelerating the implementation of effective urban governance. Most models of charter cities target the Global South, where institutions are weaker and the adverse consequences of climate change are more severe.
This is an ambitious idea, but it is not new. Cities like Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Dubai were granted special local powers different from their surroundings, and the result has been phenomenal growth in an incredibly short amount of time. Governments continue to replicate governance lessons drawn from these “experiments,” and new charter cities projects are ongoing.
Charter cities can play an outsized role in the climate change agenda. National policymakers are risk-averse and sensitive to vested interests, which has stalled climate policies at all levels. However, since charter cities are limited to new special jurisdictions, policymakers can test innovative ideas while geographically containing unintended consequences and avoiding interference from powerful interest groups. Through this demonstration effect, policymakers will have an easier time spreading successful policies without opposition. For instance, the success of congestion pricing in Singapore has helped justify its implementation elsewhere. Likewise, charter cities can more swiftly implement climate-mitigation policies like carbon taxes, sustainable infrastructure, and dense planning, and cities empowered with local decision-making can more quickly adapt to changing climate needs.
Charter cities can also bolster global climate adaptation strategies. Climate change will drive mass migration as people escape extreme weather and unproductive, arid land. In rich countries, migrants can easily move to more hospitable and resilient cities when the need arises. Those in the Global South are not as lucky. A new class of climate refugees will be forced to accept imperfect solutions, such as crossing national borders or forming slums by climate-resilient cities. This will undoubtedly generate dismal living conditions and sow the seeds of conflict.
Well-governed and resilient charter cities however, can offer a better alternative. Insulated from often-volatile national politics, these cities will be more welcoming of and open to migrants, including climate refugees. Charter cities can also compete with each other for residents, which further drives an incentive for local governments to manage sustainably. This approach is arguably more effective, cheaper, and quicker than retrofitting existing Global South cities overly exposed to climate risks.