Do cities have the institutional capacity to address climate change?

Patricia Romero Lankao
National Center for Atmospheric Research, USA

Daniel M. Gnatz
Environmental Writer, USA

Urban areas are both climate change hotspots and the seedbeds of experiments and solutions that may help avoid or moderate some of the worst predicted climate change impacts. Cities are estimated to be responsible for between 71 to 75% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and their concentrations of populations, economic activities and infrastructure create heightened risks from heatwaves, floods, sea level rise and other impacts that climate change will aggravate (see Figure 1). Yet urban areas are also the source of many potential solutions to these issues and are developing alternative housing experiments, renewable energy options, cooling roofs and other mitigation and adaptation innovations and experiments to address climate change.

De Sherbinin and Romero Lankao
Figure 1: The hazard risk of each city represents a cumulative score based on risk of cyclones, flooding, landslides and drought (De Sherbinin and Romero Lankao, 2008)

Huge challenges persist, however. Greenhouse gas emissions are at unprecedented highs and continue to increase rapidly, causing profound changes that are likely to push average global temperatures beyond the 2°C increase that has been recommended by scientists as a maximum threshold and largely accepted by international organizations involved in climate negotiations at the Conferences of the Parties (COPs). However, to slow this rise will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions through international, national and local cooperation and coordination that seems out of reach within current world governance frameworks. Even if such coordinated and sustained efforts were agreed upon at the next COP, the world would probably not see relief from the impacts of climate change until 2050. Therefore, since an increase in average global temperature beyond the 2°C threshold is almost assured, efforts to adapt and to reduce risk and vulnerability are as important to human survival as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

To be effective, these efforts must foster a profound shift in our traditional ways of understanding and responding to the climate challenge, through actions targeting the underlying drivers of urban GHG emissions, vulnerability and risk. Some of these drivers will prove very difficult to change as they are buried deep within some of our most cherished cultural and economic structures, such as our growth ethos and our patterns of production, distribution, and consumption. These structures also underlay the social inequities that allow the coexistence of sub-standard housing, illiteracy, and poverty alongside affluent consumptive patterns that are at the heart of our civilization’s crisis. But can our existing climate responses answer the culturally and economically imprinted, structural issues that condition our response to climate change? Who are the stakeholders or actors involved in urban responses? And what is the actual institutional capacity cities, local jurisdictions and governance bodies have to respond to the multi-scalar issue of climate change?

First, let us define both response and institutional response capacity. Response refers to any action taken by governmental, private and civil society actors to manage climate and environmental change, in anticipation of that change or after it has happened (Tompkins and Adger, 2005). Response capacity relates to the pool of resources governmental and nongovernmental actors can use to manage environmental change (Burch and Robinson, 2007), while attending to other development needs. The notion of response capacity is a useful tool for exploring the relationship between a city’s capacity to effect change and its climate change actions, because it rests on the view that adaptive and mitigative capacities are mostly shaped by the same factors (Burch and Robinson, 2007; Romero-Lankao et al., 2013 and 2015).

Figure 2: Institutional Response Capacity, a Framework (Source: Romero Lankao et al., 2013).

Documented climate mitigation and adaptation responses can go from incremental to transformational strategies, from short to long term, and from reactive to proactive actions (IPCC, 2014; Burch et al., 2014). For the most part, and notwithstanding international calls for transformative actions, climate responses by urban actors have been incremental and fragmented. Although there is increasing attention paid to adaptation among urban planners, urban climate policies and human and financial resources have been targeted at mitigation (Romero Lankao, 2012; Aylett, 2014). Due to the lack of more effective responses, a gap remains between cities’ commitment to respond to climate and the effectiveness of these responses (Betsill and Bulkeley, 2007).

Yet in countries as diverse as the US, Mexico, Chile and Argentina, climate change responses have been led by state and local governments, sometimes in spite of the lack of comprehensive or ambitious climate change policy at the national level (Solecki, 2012; Hardoy, 2014; Romero-Lankao et al., 2015). However, local governments are not the only actors needed to be involved in climate responses. For instance, often only a small fraction of emissions produced within a city are under its direct control. Furthermore, while cities are vulnerable to a suite of negative impacts that climate change is projected to aggravate, many adaptation options are also out of local reach. This means that other jurisdictions and actors, such as national governments or the private sector, have control over regulations, investments and programs that drive emissions and manage risk.

Therefore, in order to mitigate GHG emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, a range of actors, across sectors and levels of government, will need to create multilevel and multisectoral coalitions for effective urban climate governance. However, it is here that a primary tension arises. Coordination across levels of governance is a crucial determinant of institutional capacity as it reduces transaction costs, facilitates communication (Fisher, 2013) and enhances access to and learning from resources at national and international levels. However, it is very complicated to bring national, state and local players, often from different parties and sectors, together to achieve the coordination and alignment needed by climate responses. One local authority from Mexico City vividly captured these tensions:

Authorities at one level do not cooperate with the other level. . . . We would achieve much more if we able to sit at the same table to do planning together, if we were able to get input from other levels involved in the management [of climate change]. This would create a true construction of national climate change plans based on an effective inter-institutional coordination.(cited in Romero-Lankao et al., 2015)

These challenges might be a key reason why actors in many urban areas tend to start with smaller scale, incremental actions controlled by local jurisdictions (e.g., efficiency measures in local government buildings) and private and community actors (e.g., solar energy for industrial facilities and housing projects).

In order to improve institutional response capacity, the question of how urban actors coordinate across levels of governance becomes a much more obstinate problem than it may first appear. After all, each department, level of government and urban actor has different values, imperatives and priorities, and the question may begin and end in conflicts over what to coordinate rather than how. Any examination of urban climate change planning in isolation from other institutions is likely to provide a false sense of a city’s institutional response capacity.

There are many institutional determinants that may explain the gaps between what policy discourse is saying and what its proposed solutions to local, regional and global climate issues have actually accomplished. These gaps are related to deficits of leadership, political will or adequate human and financial resources that are fundamental for fostering inclusive economic development and investing in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructures and safety nets. Other determinants result from path-dependencies following from large investments in automobile-centric land use patterns, from growth into hazard-prone coastal and forested areas, and from economically entrenched fossil-fuel technologies. Such investments can make it increasingly difficult to for urban actors to embed climate considerations into sectoral policies, such as housing and energy, or into regional or territorial planning, particularly when these policies would result in a change of direction within a major path-dependency.

As many cities around the world, Santiago de Chile has embarked in automobile-centric land use patterns. Image Source: ADAPTE

Research also suggests that the level of authority provided, by laws and regulations to urban actors, to address climate change, along with the city’s extended experience with disaster risk management and with environmental concerns (e.g., air pollution), have enhanced the institutional response capacity. This legal framework likely helps explain why some cities (e.g., Durban, Mexico City, New York, London) are frontrunners in responding to climate change and others fall behind. Cities that lack legal mandates (e.g., Buenos Aires and Santiago) face greater restrictions on their authority in areas such as energy use and land use planning and are often left out of planning decisions taking place at higher levels. This points to the importance of multilevel legal frameworks in shaping the institutional response capacity of urban areas, and may explain the variations we observe in the effectiveness of actions between cities that may otherwise appear quite similar.

Another reason for the gap between policy and practice is that while emissions inventories, vulnerability assessments and other pieces of scientific information are necessary for effective climate responses, scientific information is frequently not sufficient, in and of itself, to trigger action. Furthermore, the information in regional and global studies often does not mesh with realties on the ground in local areas. Our work in urban areas of Latin America and Asia has taught us that there is a lack or limitation of a connection between the production of science and the production of policy. The scientific knowledge that urban actors need to support actions is often not produced at the spatial and temporal scale at which it is required, nor is it incorporated into decision making in participatory and iterative ways. Instead, many climate relevant decisions are based on feedback from professional contacts with access to guidance from other cities and governmental agencies (Aylett, 2014) that may or may not be relevant to the local area. They may be based on values, political expediency, clout of powerful interests or simple habit, rather than on a rational assessment of scientific information. There may be reason for hope, however as the use of an iterative science policy interface (e.g., the US Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments, or RISA) has shown potential to help decision makers discover the co-benefits of policy actions as a way to foster climate change adaptation and mitigation policies and programs. This indicates that a more proactive collaboration between science and policy can better communicate scientific information and help address the needs of politicians and practitioners.

While autonomy and governance capacities vary across cities, scientists, policy makers and urban actors have only touched the surface of the rich well of potential synergies and collaborations available to create effective climate actions. Cities and urban actors must learn to bridge the wide gaps between their levels of leadership, access to information, legal mandates, and financial resources and to find a common ground that lies somewhere between the multifarious values and biases of diverse urban actors and sectors. To be effective, these efforts will necessitate both vertical and horizontal collaborations and interlacing of policies from different levels of government. Such collaborations will be difficult to accomplish at best, given the many vested interests and path-dependencies at play; however, it is quite probable that they also offer our best hope to create effective transitions to sustainable climate futures.

Patricia Romero Lankao
Dr. Patricia Romero Lankao is a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, USA.  She is also a member of the UGEC Scientific Steering Committee.

Great wall 2014 Dani 3
Daniel M. Gnatz is an environmental writer and lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA


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Header Image: Bicentenario Park, Mexico City.  Credit: Gerardo Borbolla/


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