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Priority 1: Place cities at the heart of a national strategy to deliver shared prosperity while reaching net-zero emissions

Part of the publication Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity

Business-as-usual approaches to economic growth are not delivering a decent standard of living for most people, and are pushing the world to the brink of multiple ecological crises. Yet few national governments have a long-term strategy to deliver economic and social development in the context of a climate emergency. Because people, economic activity and emissions are increasingly concentrated in cities, achieving SDG11 and transitioning to inclusive, zero-carbon cities is a powerful lever to deliver faster, fairer economic development while tackling the climate crisis.

Local governments cannot realise this opportunity on their own, as even the wealthiest and most empowered among them are subject to national policies and depend on national funding. Yet national policies are often designed without considering their impact on cities. For example, taxes incentivise households’ and firms’ choices about where to locate and how much space to occupy; mandatory performance standards for cars, lighting and appliances influence total energy demand as well as local air quality and living costs; and national education curricula determine whether the civil service, businesses and non-government organisations have the knowledge and skills to act on climate change. Almost every ministry makes choices that influence cities and climate change (see Figure 12), and accordingly needs to ensure that the policies and programmes in their purview favour a zero-carbon urban transition. Yet most national governments are missing their chance to harness the power of cities.

A long-term national strategy, focused on cities and underpinned by meaningful partnerships between national and local governments, is needed to seize this opportunity. It should offer a shared vision for compact, connected and clean cities, support coordination across levels and sectors of government, and set ambitious targets for reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century while delivering decent standards of living for all. This in turn can drive the structural economic transformation and behaviour changes needed to avoid climate catastrophe. Such a strategy may be embedded in national development plans or stand alone as a National Urban Policy. The key is that it achieves its primary purpose: equipping all branches of national governments to systematically and purposefully work towards inclusive, zero-carbon and resilient cities.

The national strategy needs to be co-produced by the head of state, key line ministries and city leaders, as well as civil society and private actors to ensure its legitimacy. No single ministry can drive this agenda. Ministries of education, energy, finance, housing, industry, infrastructure, transport and more have important roles to play. Every department and agency needs this mandate to proactively consider how their decisions may impact on cities’ potential to deliver shared prosperity and climate safety, and to shape their sector-specific strategies accordingly. They also need it to work together to create the mutually reinforcing policies and complementary investments that foster inclusive, zero-carbon cities. National governments can then implement the long-term strategy through policy, fiscal reforms, an infrastructure investment plan, support for local climate action, and efforts to influence the international agenda, as outlined in the remainder of this section.