Experts: Binding Global Agreements Needed to Tackle Climate Change

Skyscrapers are reflected on a man-made lake as a cloud hovers overhead in Singapore in Apr. 2007. Desalination and recycled water are key to addressing the world's growing thirst for the precious resource, officials said here. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

This week we asked our Sustainability Roundtable to reflect on last week's C40 Cities climate leadership group meeting in Brazil, where the World Bank signed an agreement with mayors from around the world to provide significant technical and financial assistance for climate-change-reduction projects. Are cities in the right position to manage the effects of climate change? 

What does this new partnership mean for the future of global climate change agreements? Can a series of less ambitious initiatives such as this compensate for the failure to establish a binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Dan Stellar serves as the Assistant Director for the Columbia Water Center, a program of the Earth Institute at Columbia University; Stellar also served as on the Advisory Group for the Asia Society Leadership Group on Water Security in Asia. Lakis Polycarpou is Communications Coordinator at the Water Center, where he writes extensively on the global water crisis.

Broadly speaking, there are two primary methods of climate change response: adaptation and mitigation. (Adaptation being the way a system adapts to climate change, and mitigation being the way a system attempts to reduce or eliminate causes of climate change.)

Cities are ideally positioned to lead adaptation efforts. One reason for this is that while climate is a globally interconnected phenomena, climate impacts — especially hydrological impacts — will be locally specific and may vary greatly from one region to another. Already, cities are at the forefront of many adaptation efforts — for example, major coastal cities including London, New York, St. Petersburg are developing infrastructure programs to manage the projected effects of sea level rise.

In terms of mitigation, there is no doubt that cities will play an important role. Many of the most promising approaches to cutting carbon emissions are necessarily local as well, involving solutions as diverse as state-by-state policy reform to conserve groundwater and energy in India to proposals for dramatically increasing solar energy adoption in New York State.

Nevertheless, while local action will no doubt be important, cities will not be able to take on the climate challenge alone; the enormity of the climate challenge will undoubtedly require binding global agreements as well. While experts differ on the extent of carbon reductions that are needed to avoid the worse effects of climate change, even the most conservative estimates will require major changes in global energy use patterns. These types of changes are only attainable as a result of political and economic decisions made at the very highest levels, and can only be brought about by binding, multinational agreements.