Cities love climate change. Well, they don’t exactly love climate change itself, obviously. But they love doing something about it, at least if you measure their enthusiasm by the number who’ve signed up to take action against global warming at a local level.

Under banners that include Cities for Climate Protection, Energie-Cités, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, hundreds of cities have made a commitment of some kind to addressing the problem, either by mitigation, adaptation, or both. These commitments have often been made at international conferences, and with the support of high-profile figures like Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But what can this plethora of commitments, conferences and coalitions actually achieve, other than making local politicians feel good about making themselves known on the world stage? At first glance, it may seem that the short answer to this question is ‘not much’. City authorities typically have little control over energy generation and regulation of large industry activities, and lack the tax-raising powers and other policy levers used by national governments to induce large-scale changes in greenhouse gas emissions.

mischiru at Flickr.

Energy-guzzling: 70% of energy consumption occurs in cities. Image: mischiru at Flickr.

This week, however, Mayors from over 350 European cities set out to demonstrate that they could take measurable action against climate change. The Covenant of Mayors, signed on Tuesday, commits the cities to meeting and exceeding the EU’s 20% carbon reduction target by the year 2020. To do so, they will all produce a sustainable energy action plan, which will outline how they intend to achieve this, and report on progress every two years.

Even as the ink was drying on the newly-signed Covenant, concerns were being voiced about the amount of money available to fund the commitments. A cross-party group of MEPs claimed that the Commission’s President, José Manuel Barroso, had promised €500m for this initiative as part of the EU’s economic recovery plan, but that this has now been withdrawn.

To coincide with the signing, the European Investment Bank announced that it was developing a financing facility to assist cities to mitigate greenhouse emissions. The facility would be made available to two types of initiative that fall naturally into cities’ policy remit: public transport and energy efficiency in buildings. But the grant funding available in the first year is only €15m: not significant in infrastructure terms (Transport for London alone will spend around a hundred times this amount in the current financial year). The initial grant fund is accompanied by an intention on the bank’s part to spend more money on these types of project in its ordinary lending portfolio. How well city-based climate initiatives will fare among the Bank’s many other priorities remains to be seen.

The signing of the Covenant this week is a reflection that it’s not just national governments who feel they have an important role to play in addressing climate change. But it will be some time before we know whether this city-level initiative is capable of delivering real cuts to carbon emissions.

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