Networking Cities after Paris: Weighing the Ambition of Urban Climate Change Experimentation

Image credit: John LeGear via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Over the past few decades, cities have repeatedly demonstrated high levels of ambition with regard to climate action. Global environmental governance has been marked by a proliferation of policy actions taken by local governments around the world to demonstrate their potential to advance climate change mitigation and adaptation. Leading ‘by example’ and demonstrating the extent of action that it is possible to deliver, cities have aspired to raise the ambition of national and international climate governance and put action into practice via a growing number of ‘climate change experiments’ delivered on the ground. Yet accounts of the potential of cities in global environmental governance have often stopped short of a systematic valuation of the nature and impact of the networked dimension of this action. This article addresses this by assessing the nature, and challenges faced by, urban climate governance in the post‐Paris era, focusing on the ‘experimentation’ undertaken in cities and the city networks shaping this type of governance. First, we unpack the concept of ‘urban climate change experimentation’, the ways in which it is networked, and the forces driving it. In the second and third parts of the article, we discuss two main pitfalls of networked urban experimentation in its current form, focusing on issues of scaling experiments and the nature of experimentation. We call for increased attention to ‘scaling up’ experiments beyond urban levels of governance, and to transformative experimentation with governance and politics by and in cities. Finally, we consider how these pitfalls allow us to weigh the potential of urban climate ambition, and consider the pathways available for supporting urban climate change experimentation.

Policy Implications

  • Urban climate change governance in the post‐Paris era is increasingly about experimentation, or testing innovative technologies and policies ‘on the ground’. This is associated with increasingly complex patterns of city networking, and driven by priorities going beyond those of the UNFCCC regime. Understanding this new mode of governance as distinct from conventional local climate policy is necessary in order to harness its potential for global climate change governance.
  • Cities cannot ‘save the planet’ alone. There needs to be an increasing focus on vertical ‘scaling up’ urban climate change experiments to change regional, national and global policy, as a complement to ‘scaling out’ as horizontal replication of experiments between cities.
  • Vertical linkages, including flows of knowledge and finance, between actors at different governance levels need to be built to create pathways for ‘scaling up’ urban experiments, e.g. through the National Urban Policies framework of the UN New Urban Agenda. IFIs could enable direct access to climate finance for cities to support experimentation and scaling.
  • Beyond a preoccupation with technical ‘solutions’ to climate change, the social justice implications of the types of urban environments shaped by experimentation must be more systematically considered. Experimentation with urban governance and politics holds great potential for reconfiguring urban systems to deliver climate change mitigation and adaptation, which should be harnessed by city leaders.