10 Years and still going strong — WWF’s One Planet City Challenge continues to inspire!

In conjunction with the launch of the One Planet City Challenge (OPCC) 2021–22, two OPCC veterans share their reflections on a decade of urban development and efforts to foster the creation of One Planet Cities around the globe — cities that enable all people to thrive within the ecological limits of our one and only planet.

Barbara Evaeus and Carina Borgström-Hansson from WWF Sweden gave birth to the One Planet City Challenge (OPCC) just over 10 years ago. Both are still involved in WWF’s efforts to harness the power of local governments and their citizens in the global transition toward a sustainable future. Let’s hear how it all began and where they see this work heading.

Ecology and green living in the city. © Shutterstock / Olga Kashubin / WWF

WWF and cities — a match made in heaven

Carina: It’s no secret of course that the high-consumption lifestyles of wealthier urban populations can have really detrimental impacts on both humans and the natural world — well beyond the city’s own borders. Cities’ dependency and impact on global ecosystem services was the very reason for the creation of the ecological footprint concept which aims at connecting the dots between consumption here and impact there. Human demand on nature is concentrated in cities so it would actually be odd if WWF didn’t engage in cities in its ambition to reduce humanity’s global footprint on the planet and to protect its biodiversity. Seeing that 55% of the world’s population now live in cities and are responsible for over 70% of global carbon emissions, tackling the urban challenge seemed like a no-brainer. We need to abandon our unsustainable and ineffective use of natural resources and adopt one-planet strategies and practices, and cities are the places where we need to start. A shift is critical and there’s no time to waste.

Barbara: Well, for me it all started with a report we issued back in 2010 called Reinventing the City: Three Prerequisites for Greening Urban Infrastructure. The report highlighted that the trend of rapid urbanization was projected to continue for many decades, and that based on the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, $350 trillion dollars were slated for investment in urban infrastructure and use during the coming 30 years. This was a massive amount of money — seven times the global GDP at the time, and it became clear that we had to do everything in our power to avoid high-carbon lock-in for decades to come. We realized that we needed seize this opportunity to redirect investments from BAU to innovative, sustainable solutions that could deliver on both reduced emissions and increased well-being.

What a difference a decade makes

Barbara: So, a lot has happened since we launched Reinventing the City, and the widespread recognition of the key role cities play in creating a future in line with the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement has grown tremendously. Compared to the first UN climate summit I attended in 2009 — COP15 in Copenhagen, cities now have a much prominent position on the global stage. At the time, city representatives who ventured to participate in such formal, high-level events seemed quite unsure as to whether their presence had any actual impact. However, over the last 10 years we’ve seen how the cities themselves, and the networks created to support them, have grown considerably more robust and sophisticated at ensuring their voices are heard loud and clear, thereby effectively contributing to global processes otherwise aimed exclusively at national governments.

Carina: It’s true. There is no doubt that non-state actors can motivate countries to increase their level of ambition when setting their national emission reduction targets (aka NDCs) as required under the Paris Agreement. They can demonstrate through action on the ground that meeting the Paris Agreement’s objectives is both possible and desirable. The last decade we have seen amazing trends such as innovative urban planning and governance, and technology leaps leading to plummeting renewable energy prices. According to a recent analysis we conducted, over 100 cities that reported on the ICLEI-CDP Unified Reporting System last year have already set science-based targets. This is encouraging but of course we need many more cities to follow their lead. To do this WWF is partnering with C40 Cities, the Global Covenant of Mayors, ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), CDP and the World Resources Institute (WRI) through the UN Cities Race to Zero campaign which aims to mobilize 1,000 cities toward zero emissions and a green and just recovery in response to the global climate emergency by the end of this year.

The leap from local to glocal

Carina: In Sweden, where I’m based, we were working with individual cities to enact change at a local level before we created the City Challenge. We worked with a few really ambitious cities and were quite impressed with their efforts and commitment, and realized we needed to see more cities doing this work. We also realized that we weren’t in a position to expand this type of work on the ground with other cities due to limited resources. But it was clear that these cities could serve as a source of inspiration for other Swedish cities, and vice versa — that others might inspire and motivate these cities to further raise their levels of ambition. Thus the idea of recognizing and rewarding cities for meaningful climate action was born.

Barbara: Yes, so we launched the City Challenge as a Swedish pilot in 2011, in conjunction with Earth Hour that year which explains the original name — Earth Hour City Challenge. Local governments throughout the country were invited to join this friendly competition designed to mobilize and recognize climate leadership from cities. Malmö in the south of Sweden took home the prize that year and was recognized especially for its goal to run on 100% renewable energy by 2030.

Given the success of the City Challenge in Sweden, colleagues throughout the WWF network became intrigued by the potential for engaging cities in their climate work. The following year the City Challenge was run in 6 countries: Canada, India, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the United States. And the rest is history as we say. Since its inception in 2011, we’ve seen the participation of nearly 600 cities from 53 countries. Global winners include Vancouver, Cape Town, Seoul, Paris and most recently — Mexico City.

Carina: It’s been an amazing journey! The OPCC has not only grown geographically and in numbers of participants, but its reporting frameworks and assessment tools have also grown more robust. To ensure critical mass and coordination with other initiatives aiming to enable the disclosure and aggregation of city climate data, we originally partnered with ICLIE — Local Governments for Sustainability. Their data collection portal would later be merged with CDP’s reporting system and aligned with the Common Reporting Framework of the Global Covenant of Mayors (GCoM). In addition to the close collaboration with ICLEI, CDP and GCoM, WWF’s One Planet City Challenge has also assembled a high-level jury of experts on climate and urban development from key organizations and assigned them the task of selecting national and global winners each round. Although the jury is completely independent, evaluation is based on criteria developed by WWF.

Last but not least, we have also developed our own methodology for evaluating city targets based on their alignment with the Paris Agreement’s objective of not exceeding 1.5°C of global warming. WWF’s science-based targets assessment methodology is recommended by the Science Based Targets Network for assessing compliance of cities with the Paris Agreement. Our methodology now enables us to guide cities on the urgent journey of halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. It also enables us to identify leaders on this journey, even among smaller cities.

Environmentally conscious bikers cycling in traffic in San Francisco, California, United States of America. © istockphoto.com / WWF-Canada

We do love our cities

Barbara: That local governments needed support and motivation in formulating ambitious climate goals and the development of strategies to achieve them was clear from the start. The role WWF played in motivating cities to measure and report their climate data on established platforms was soon confirmed through the participation of hundreds of cities, many of whom had never previously reported. What we overlooked at the beginning however, was the importance of public engagement — a key ingredient in cities’ success in implementing climate action plans locally. What eventually became obvious through our work with the One Planet City Challenge was that cities with the most ambitious and inspiring climate action plans and strategies were also those most committed to including their citizens in the very earliest stages of urban planning. And who better to involve in creating visions and the plans to upfill those visions than the people experiencing housing, transportation, and all other aspects of urban life on a daily basis?!

Well, we quickly remedied this oversight by creating We Love Cities the public engagement arm of the One Planet City Challenge. This campaign invites people in cities all over the world to show their support for the impressive efforts that finalist cities are making toward sustainability. Citizens are invited to vote for their favorite cities, share what they love about them on social media and to submit suggestions for how their cities can become more sustainable. Through the campaign we’ve seen how combining people’s love of place and concerns about global climate issues with learning about the potential of concrete urban sustainability action right where they live, helps build the long-term support and active participation from citizens required for successful transformation of cities towards the future we want.

The journey continues

Carina: As with much else in our world, the One Planet City Challenge, has itself gone through a significant transformation during the last 10 years. It has gone from a project aimed at identifying and highlighting city leadership into a widespread global program, aligned with key reporting initiatives, and where cities receive guidance on how to set and deliver on science-based climate targets.

As we celebrate this progress and our 10-year anniversary, WWF invites cities around the globe to join WWF’s One Planet City Challenge 2021–22. Contact us at opcc@wwf.se to find out how your city can inspire the world and show leadership by setting science-based targets and action plans!

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.