Right now, the international community is gathered in Durban, South Africa for The 17th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (better known as COP17). There is little expectation that the summit will produce a new agreement on reducing carbon emissions, even though the first and only binding carbon emissions reduction targets (set out in the Kyoto Protocol) are set to expire at the end of 2012.

It’s an issue that has lost momentum since the disappointing COP15 conference in Copenhagen two years ago. With economic woes currently dominating the political agenda COP17 has been struggling to get the coverage it needs to succeed. Critics cite the difficulties of getting 195 countries to agree. Others look to different international platforms, such as Rio +20 to make progress.

But it’s too early to rule out COP17 – it has an important role to play. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, recently said: "A great task lies before us in Durban. It can be the next essential step in a global effort against climate change. Durban can, Durban must capture this global momentum for change."

COP17 brings together over 20,000 people, and connects many more through social media and wider publicity. This connection and the increased public awareness of climate change bring unparalleled value.

Holding the summit in Durban reminds everyone that it is often developing countries and vulnerable populations that are most affected by climate change. For instance, if sea levels rise, then parts of Durban will be underwater. For the conference, a blue line has been drawn around the city to show the areas that could be flooded.

It is only when you bring things down to this level that the potential effects of climate change hit home. On a city level, it’s easier to understand problems – like ‘How will people get to work if the transport system is damaged?’ or ‘How will we deal with flooding?’ And at a city level, it’s easier to take the actions to solve them.

Whatever happens nationally and internationally, local governments have been proactively addressing climate change. An Arup team will be hosting some side events at COP17. One, Climate Action in Megacities, co-sponsored with the C40 and the City of Johannesburg will showcase best practice strategies that cities are using to combat climate change.

70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. So actions taken by cities today will have ramifications for generations to come. Some cities, including the C40, have taken the lead in addressing climate change. More can do the same. COP17 can encourage further local action, and in turn cities can show the leadership on climate change that national governments and the international community lack.

Is your city taking strong action on climate change? Let me know what actions you’ve seen near where you live.


– Next week: Yusuf Raja, a senior environmental consultant at Arup, reports from COP17 in Durban: what’s happening on the ground and how he thinks the summit will affect governments, businesses and individuals.