By David Groisman
Director of Resilience and General Director of Management Exchange, City of Buenos Aires

Over the last few years, cities around the world have started to adopt a protagonist role in the battle against climate change. Whether they are speaking in international forums, proposing ambitious goals to reduce emissions, or working hand in hand with their neighbors to achieve more sustainable urban settings, it is clear their agendas for climate change are a fundamental piece to their local administration. In this sense, urban climate action represents an opportunity, not only to offset the city footprint on the environment, but also to better the quality of life for all in cities.

However, it is also true that uncertainty can exist with respect to the first steps to implementation of a climate action plan. In fact, climate change can present itself as a distant and incomprehensible concept, which can make it difficult, in the context of finite resources, the prioritization and definition of actions to start working on this issue. At the forefront of this scenario, from the City of Buenos Aires, we would like to share five lessons learned in the development of our climate change strategy, which could be useful for any public policy maker that is taking on this task.

1. Measure and Set Goals

The starting point for any public policy, whether it be about climate change or not, is to know where we are starting and where are we going. What does this translate to? First, it is to define our baseline, with mitigation as well as adaptation. In this aspect, it is useful to start by taking stock of the greenhouse gases, identifying which ones are our main source of emissions and weigh those for the data of each activity at the local level, in a way to understand what and how much we are emitting. This, of course, is a complex task, but can be begin conducting a study of existing data, estimates and parameters at the national and international level, which later, little by little, will generate new information to strengthen the complexity of the employed methodology.

On the other hand, it will also be necessary to analyze the level of vulnerability and threats to those that are exposed in the city and their different sectors. One more time, one can begin to construct these indicators in a participatory manner, to later advance towards a more complex analysis with maps of risk and scenario projections.

Once we begin this initial diagnostic, we can start to think about which goals we would like to focus and the actions that we will implement to reach those goals. It is important to define the maximum and long-term prospect for which we plan (for example, achieving carbon neutrality by 2050), but it is also equally important to define the intermediary goals that we will encounter while pursuing this objective. Because of this, a reachable goal for the first year of implementation could be to plant 500 trees or to distribute 1,000 low consumption lamps for households.

2. Promote Sustainable Movement

Transportation is one of the principal sources of emissions in cities. In fact, if hundreds of thousands of people traveled every day from their homes to work, and vice versa, in their own car, the environmental impact would be enormous. Likewise, because of different more complex goals to be addressed by local governments (such as the transition of the electric grid), transportation represents a sector where at the subnational level, they can implement better concrete improvements on a short- and long-term timeline.

In this framework, to plan different levels of interventions, a useful focus is to “avoid, shift, and improve”. First, we can look to avoid the need for longer trips through urban development that promotes a mixture of uses, walkability and nearby businesses. Projects for compact cities, or of “15 minutes”, are represented in this goal, where the necessities like education, health, work, and recreation can be found close to the home. Additionally, we can work to encourage different modes of transportation to promote use of forms with a smaller environmental impact. To achieve this, improving the public transportation accessibility, security, number of stations and more will be fundamental, as well as creating conditions for more active mobility, for example creating an integrated circuit of bike lanes. Finally, we can improve vehicle efficiency, in the public and the private, promoting the transition to energy sources with lower emissions. Given the important necessary changes, this conversion will be able considered a strategy for the long term.

3. Drive a Legislative Agenda

While we can reach large advances in the climate change agenda with the implementation of policy and programs in the government, there are some themes, from elimination of single-use plastics to building codes, that will demand the establishment or modification of specific regulations. In this sense, urging a legislative agenda for climate change favors compromises, implement bottom-up changes, and the creation of positive and negative incentives.

Because of this, in the City of Buenos Aires, in 2009 they approved law N° 3.147 which established the progressive reduction of plastic bag use. After a period of transition in the industry and societal outreach, finally in 2016 the city established the full ban of plastic bags in hypermarkets, supermarkets and food and drink self-servicing locations. In this respect, it was not only the change in the cultural norms, but it was also the awareness to these actions that helped, for example the free use of reusable bags, and that made possible today, that anyone who goes out to a store will bring their own bag.

4. Benchmark the Government

Pushing an agenda for climate change also implies that the government will also ask the city dwellers to put in practice the changes they make. This is especially true when we think of the public offices and buildings that can be transformed to showcase the transition we would like to achieve as a city: the separation and reduction of waste, increased use of bikes, establishment of protocols for efficient use of energy and water and including the installation of solar panels. In this way, for example, initiatives like exchanging LED lightbulbs in government offices can present itself as a cost-effective action, easy to communicate and that can inspire city dwellers to embark on the same change.

5. Encourage More Agents of Change

Finally, we have, possibly, the most relevant point of all. As we know, climate change is not a battle that can be won by governments acting on their own agenda. On the contrary, it is necessary to include the compromise of all citizens that will need to contribute to the transformation in a way that we consume energy, how we move or dispose of our waste. To achieve this, it is key that local administrations clearly and openly communicate what they are doing and why it is important, demonstrating how the climate change agenda can signify tangible improvements for the quality of urban life.

Similarly, we need to emphasize we will not obtain our goal by only stating our purpose, but rather it is also necessary to include the population and create participatory spaces. In this space, one group that could present itself as a huge ally for the implementation of a climate change agenda are the young adults, who understand the best what is at stake for their future and for that of future generations. It is necessary to listen to them, incorporate their perspectives of our strategies and give them tools so they act as true agents of change. To initiate this dialogue, there are many alternatives, like creating tables for participatory governing, the organization Hackathon, and challenges for the co-creation of public policy solutions, or the invitation to participate in planting trees, among many others.

Finally, one last reflection: if political willingness to implement such a climate change agenda exists, the first step is already done. Thus, our recommendation is to begin, work with the existing resources and include the public. The expertise, the technology and the data will be gained in the process and, whenever you want to realize, your city will be part of the large urban community that makes a difference to reach a sustainable future.