The global climate change negotiations are coming to a close in Lima, Peru, and we have edged ever so slightly closer to a climate deal. In the coming days, commentators will (as usual) be divided over whether it was a success, whether negotiators did enough to prepare the ground for the next conference, and whether we are on track for a deal that allows us to avoid dangerous climate change.

But outside the negotiating rooms, another question was building. Does it really matter what national governments agree here? Not because anyone doubts the threat of climate change; quite the opposite. The question is being asked because mayors, local authorities and heads of municipal governments are showing the political leadership that is too often lacking on the international stage – and making the moves that matter without waiting for a grand global deal to materialize.

Over 1,000 cities voluntarily report their greenhouse gas emissions through platforms like those provided by CDP, ICLEI and C40; and more than 200 set targets to reduce their emissions. If these targets are met, net reductions will reach 13 gigatons by 2050, well over twice the annual emissions of the US. Five leading cities have committed to totally decarbonizing by 2050, and Melbourne in Australia is attempting to achieve this ambitious aim as early as 2020.

Huge opportunities to reduce emissions exist at a local level. Cities often have control of public transport, planning and waste. They have the ability to create green spaces. Their leaders are closer to the public and can incentivize the adoption of energy efficiency measures and encourage citizens to source products locally.

This brings into question the idea that a global climate deal is the only way to get things moving. But to go so far as to believe that local power can deliver in full, and that the global stage is becoming irrelevant, may also be wrong. To reach the most ambitious targets, there needs to be interaction between local, national and international players, because the removal of structural barriers is something that can only be done at those levels.

For instance, cities are responsible for two-thirds of global energy use, but only rarely do they control energy policy. Aside from domestic solar photovoltaic, opportunities to develop renewable generation capacity seldom fall inside city boundaries, meaning that urban leaders have little or no control over the source of electricity used by their populace.

Tapping into the carbon savings from energy efficiencies is a difficult task, too. Standards for energy-using products, such as dishwashers and freezers, are set nationally or even regionally, meaning that while a city can incentivize the purchase of greener products, it cannot edit the options available to consumers by raising the standards of the market as a whole.

In a side event at the climate conference, Délio Malheiros, Deputy Mayor of Brazil’s sixth-largest city, Belo Horizonte, revealed that national-local tensions exist even in the transport sector, the most likely to be under local control. Brazil’s federal government recently instigated tax breaks for new vehicle purchases, and this has significantly increased private car ownership. As a consequence, transportation emissions in Belo Horizonte are on the rise.

Yet evidence shows that, when national and international regulation provides the opportunity, cities and local authorities will take huge leaps forward to meet important goals.

Take community energy, for example. Twenty percent of Germany’s electricity comes from renewable sources and, significantly, two-thirds of this generation capacity is owned by citizens and communities. National regulation has also allowed cities such as Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest, to buy back the infrastructure. In 2013, citizens voted to take control of their electricity grid, making it easier to implement low carbon energy policies. The UK, which has only recently legislated for the possibility of community energy ownership, has seen almost 200 local authorities register interest in becoming an energy supplier.

So maybe what we’re seeing is a different role for national and international agreements: not necessarily to set a centralized path, nor even to actively decentralize; but to create space for local action to pursue and build on its already proven impact. It will require some humility to recalibrate towards this goal – but the prize could be huge.

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Author: Jane Burston is Head of the Centre for Carbon Measurement at the National Physical Laboratory in the United Kingdom, and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for the Future of Real Estate and Urbanization.

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