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Climate emergency: Hope or empty words?

Gero Rueter cmk
July 9, 2019

Spurred on by the Fridays for Future movement, more and more cities around the world are declaring a climate emergency — in recent weeks, it's been almost a daily occurrence. Is this a sign of real change?

Hundreds of New York City students, young people and climate activists gathered at Columbus Circle for a rally followed by a march and die-in to Times Square
Image: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/E. McGregor

More than 700 cities around the world have recognized the urgency of the climate crisis and made an emergency declaration, according to the Climate Emergency Declaration & Mobilisation in Action group.

The Australian city of Darebin, near Melbourne, got the ball rolling in December 2016, with municipalities in the United States, Canada and the UK following suit in 2017 and 2018. This year, the movement reached Europe, with even the national parliaments of the UK, Ireland, France and Portugal making a countrywide declaration.

The first German city to join the cause was Constance, on the southern border with Switzerland. By early July, more than 45 German cities and municipalities added their names to the list, among them larger centers like Düsseldorf, Münster, Aachen, Bonn, Kiel and Saarbrücken. According to the Climate Alliance Hamm, more than 100 additional municipal parliaments are planning to vote on similar declarations in the coming weeks.

Influential protests

In Constance, the decision to declare a climate emergency in early May was inspired by the Fridays for Future protest movement. "Climate goals are now the city's highest priority," says 24-year-old student Noemi Mundhaas, who along with fellow students was able to convince the mayor and municipal council.

According to the city's resolution, all future council decisions must now be thoroughly examined for the environmental bona fides. In doing so, preference should be given to solutions "which have a positive effect on climate, environment and species protection." In addition, climate protection efforts should be sped up and improved, and the mayor should be updated twice a year about any progress or difficulties in reducing emissions.

Read more: Blocked EU fails on climate pledge, despite increasing public pressure

Mundhaas is glad that her city is now taking the "first tiny steps" toward seriously addressing the climate challenge. The decision to declare a climate emergency is "a strong signal to the general public," she said. "The issue is now being discussed at home around the kitchen table, and we're already seeing a lot of response."

"In the first council meeting [following the declaration], the city made solar power compulsory for all new buildings, and car parking will likely also be made more expensive," she said, before adding that this wasn't enough. "We still need to make significant changes to get the climate crisis under control."

Paris, Cologne scale up the challenge

Paris, which hosted the signing of the landmark 2015 climate accord, became the latest major city to declare a climate emergency on July 9, announcing plans to create a "climate academy" to educate the young and the public in general. It follows the lead of New York, which became the world's biggest city to join the cause on June 26. 

Joining Paris on Tuesday, Cologne became the first German city with a population of over 1 million people to make an emergency declaration. As the burgeoning Fridays for Future protests has shown, nobody can afford to ignore the climate issue, the city's mayor, Henriette Reker, told DW. Among her city colleagues, she's noticed "a much greater awareness of the need for climate protection measures," she said, a change from the past.

"Cities are the main emitters of CO2 emissions, and that's why we have to take on the biggest responsibility for climate protection," said Reker. "It's good that we're now making things more concrete — and we also want to do that here in Cologne."

Read more: 'Cartoons for Future': Artists react to the climate crisis

In an effort to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, Cologne has committed itself to making "immediate, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all sectors of society." It aims to examine the effects city planning will have on the climate, and invest more in renewable energies and sustainable transportation.

By 2050, the city wants to reach its goal of being climate neutral — and if Reker has her way, even earlier. Düsseldorf, in North Rhine-Westphalia's coal-rich industrial region, wants to be climate neutral by 2035, and several British cities are aiming to reach that target by 2030.

"It's only a matter of time before other cities follow suit," said Sarah Mekjian of the Climate Alliance, which represents the interests of 1,700 cities in Europe and is dedicated to local climate action. She said that although the climate resolutions "have no legal significance," they represent a significant step because they "emphasize the existential urgency of the crisis."

''Important message'

Many climate campaigners see the emergency resolutions made by local municipalities as an important precedent. "There's an important message behind these declarations: Cities are setting the course for a way of living that's in harmony with climate challenges," said Uwe Schneidewind, the head of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and member of the NGO Club of Rome, which seeks to address humanity's future challenges.

It remains to be seen if the upswing in climate concern "will continue in the coming weeks and months" and lead to a fundamental shift in the global culture, he said. But one thing is certain for Schneidewind.

"These challenges are so fundamental that the climate issue will remain on the political agenda — and it will have a much greater prominence than in the past," he said.

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