Johannesburg — Some of Africa's biggest cities are joining an international drive by city governments to respond to global climate change.
Half the world's population now live in cities and the United Nations expects the numbers of city residents to nearly double in the next 30 to 40 years. Cities are estimated to use more than two-thirds of the world's energy and generate more than 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Responding to the threat large cities pose to the environment, 40 mayors from major cities across the globe have formed what they call the "C40 Climate Leadership Group" – a network of mayors from the world's megacities who have recognised the need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The group says that while national and international political forces are slow to implement change, city leaders are more quickly able to find and execute ways of mitigating the effects of urban growth on climate change.
Last month, the network – now comprising 66 cities – met in Africa for the first time, hosted by the City of Johannesburg.
Johannesburg has been joined by Addis Ababa, Cairo and Lagos in the network, and Cape Town, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi are now listed as observer members.
Speaking at a "Mayors Summit" of the network, Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau said cities need to reconsider how they interacted with the people who live in them so that they can be sustainable and liveable.
City leaders have to change the way urban spaces operate and how they are planned if rapid urbanisation is to be managed, he added.
"The reality is that when you build cities, sometimes you build them around cars, sometimes you build them around enterprises, sometimes you build them around technology. But you forget the most fundamental issue, which is that you need to build cities around people."
As the network gathered in Johannesburg, one of their major concerns was whether their capacity to effect change is being recognised internationally.
Mayors at the summit signed a letter calling for the inclusion of efforts to combat climate change as a specific sustainable development goal when the new global development agenda is decided after the UN's Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015. The new goal is intended to confront the challenge of balancing rapid urban growth with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
During the C40 Summit, the group's chair, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, delivered the letter to Joan Clos, the executive director of the UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat).
Clos said if the big influx of migrants into cities across the world is not addressed, none of the development goals can be reached.
He said cities had "huge potential to mobilise social and political energies" in their countries to persuade national governments to deal with the issue and address poverty.
Research released at the summit suggests that city officials are taking climate change seriously.
Key findings in a document entitled Climate Action in Megacities Volume 2.0, which analyses the efforts of member cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, show that the number of climate actions taken has nearly doubled, from about 4700 in 2011 to 8068 in 2013.
Ninety percent of participating cities report that they are taking action to reduce emissions from outdoor lighting by introducing LED street lighting, while 35 cities now have, or are in the process of developing, bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. And while only six cities had developed bike-sharing schemes in 2011, this number increased to 36 cities in 2013.
"There is no doubt that national governments are progressively constructing the international regulatory framework to address climate change. There is no doubt that cities are leading the way in implementing the specific measures that improve liveability and address climate change," said the UN climate negotiations chief, Christiana Figueres.
Figueres attended the summit as a show of support for mayors who are pushing for national and local government to work together more closely on these issues.
She asked the mayors to lobby their national governments, which will be responsible for negotiating the COP 21climate change agreement in 2015.
"Reach out to those governments to let them know that the mayors of megacities are not just ready for a strong climate agreement - they actually need a strong climate agreement," said Figueres.