Beyond frontrunners in urban climate governance

This post will appear in January 2017 on the INOGOV blog (in slightly modified form).


Cities are generally considered to hold a unique position in climate change adaptation and mitigation. It is in cities where the majority of greenhouse gasses are produced, and it is in cities where climate change impacts will be experienced most severely. It is also in cities where there is huge potential for mitigation and adaptation measures through changed behaviour and technological innovations. More promising perhaps, it is also in cities where innovative urban climate governance approaches and instruments can be developed, implemented, tested and refined—and from where promising approaches and instruments can be scaled up and out (Evans, Karvonen, & Raven, 2016).


Indeed, many cities around the world are very active in developing local solutions to global urban climate change problems. These include, but are not limited to, novel forms of financing for office building retrofits, citizen-business-government networks in urban development, nudges for citizens to reduce their traffic miles or household energy consumption, and an ever growing range of certification instruments for buildings, precincts, modes of transport, and even cities as a whole (Van der Heijden, 2014). Since the early 2000s, a large literature has developed that seeks to understand the performance of these urban climate governance innovations.


When overviewing the literature, it becomes clear that an excellent job has been done in the mapping and exploring of innovative urban climate governance. The literature is, however, less well developed when it comes to interrogation and critical reflection (Jayne & Ward, 2017). Rob Imrie and Jonathan Davies have already expressed some concerns about this lack of critical reflection in earlier INGOV blogposts. Here, I will focus on the problems that result from the dominant focus on ‘frontrunner’ cities in this literature. That is, the exploration of urban climate governance innovations in cities that are considered leaders or ahead of the pack. They are often the world’s larger if not largest cities (such as New York, Tokyo, Sydney, and Amsterdam) and often members of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group—a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change.


Looking for urban climate governance innovations, one is likely to find these where leaders in government, civil society, and industry think outside of the box, do not take routines for granted, and see opportunities where others do not. More often than not, it is in large cities where these actors have the resources to question routines and experiment with alternatives. There is ample and well-educated staff at the local council office, there is a large enough group of engaged citizens, the local business community can bear the costs of participating in network activities. Partly seeking to solve local problems, partly seeking to address global problems with local solutions, and partly seeking to be in the limelight of ‘Climate Leadership’ actors in these frontrunner cities engage in urban climate governance innovations.


In studying 35 of these urban climate governance innovations between 2012 and 2016 (Van der Heijden, 2017), I realised they come with three particular shortfalls. First is an overall marginal reduction of carbon emissions at the city level. Second is a tendency of those involved in these governance innovations, as well as the C40 Group, to report this marginal performance as an outstanding result. Third is a lack of scalability and transferability of the governance innovations to other contexts.


Let me begin with the first shortfall. To understand how well urban governance innovations perform I questioned (a) how many participants (organisations, individuals, buildings, etc.) they attract, and (b) how much they have improved the performance of these participants (reduced energy consumption, carbon emission reductions, etc.). I assessed governance innovations as promising when (a) they attract at least 15% cent of the market they target, and (b) they have contributed to reducing participants’ energy consumption with at least 20%. The first number comes from the diffusion of innovations literature that argues that for an innovation to have a chance of becoming mainstream some 15-25% of a market needs to participate (Moore, 2002). The second number comes from the technology and behaviour literature that argues that a 50-80% of energy and carbon emission reductions are possible at a net-cost benefit with well-trialled technologies and low behavioural interventions (IPCC, 2014). Against these two relatively lenient criteria the vast majority of innovations is not promising in terms of attracting participants (85%), nor in improving their performance (80%). More troublesome, with the exception of five of the innovations studies, all innovations’ overall performance was insignificant in terms of reducing the overall resource consumption or carbon emission in the markets they target (that is, less than 0,5%).


Strikingly, however, those involved in these innovations often market this marginal performance as outstanding results—the second shortfall. I found this tendency in almost all of the innovations studied. In 2015, the office-resource-consumption reduction program CitySwitch Green Office, for example, proudly marketed that in 2014 its participants had reduced as much energy as is used by 12,500 households. Whilst that looks like an impressive number, these energy reductions represent a mere 0.8% when contrasted to the overall energy consumed in the Australian (the market targeted by CitySwitch). Even more strikingly, in 2016 the C40 Group awarded CitySwitch a prestigious City Climate Leadership Award to “recognize the world’s most inspiring and innovative cities tackling climate change”. Likewise, in 2013 this award went to Melbourne for a governance innovation that by then had seen a mere five office buildings retrofitted (of the 1200 it targets), and in 2014 it went to Amsterdam for a governance innovation that had not only failed to see any meaningful results yet but that had also resulted in much political turmoil in the City of Amsterdam.


Finally, the third shortfall. It should be kept in mind that these “world’s most inspiring and innovative cities” have the capacity to develop, experiment with, and learn from these urban climate governance innovations. Throughout the 200 or so interviews that I have carried out with stakeholders in these 35 innovations a ‘perfect storm’ of political leadership and capacity in terms of staff and funds was often mentioned as a core reason why a governance innovation made it from the drawing boards to actual implementation. But it was also a lack of capacity in terms of staff and funds that was often mentioned as a core reason why a governance innovation did not spill over from the often handful of current participants to the majority market. It takes much time, much effort, and often one-on-one discussions with individuals and organisations, so explained interviewees, to convince them of the need to reduce resource consumption and carbon emissions. This raises considerable questions about the ability of smaller cities to learn from the larger ones and implement the governance innovations developed there in their own jurisdiction.


The above narrative paints a gloomy picture. Urban climate governance innovations developed in the world’s major cities at best have limited impact on urban resource consumption and carbon emissions. Because of the capacity required in terms of staff and funds, they also seem inapt to transfer to smaller cities. Rather than our ongoing search for that one governance innovation that has achieved good results in that one particular big city, we may be better off to focus our attention on smaller cities and those cities that we do not directly consider to be frontrunners. Promising urban governance approaches and instruments may very well be found in less experimental and less visionary innovations.

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