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How to measure the long-term impact of urban climate initiatives

In recent years, impacts of climate change have been felt at an alarming and unprecedented scale. Increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. In November 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement was adopted to strengthen and expedite the global response to the climate change threat. The agreement seeks to contain global temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C. However, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is a daunting task which requires a significant shift in behaviour and development pathways across societies.

Many countries and their cities, from the UK, Netherlands and South Africa to China and Columbia, are at the forefront of taking measures to mitigate their carbon footprints. Their successes are increasingly being evaluated not only through the impact achieved across an individual project, but through the long-term and sustainable transformation they can inspire across a range of sectors. While the potential of transformation is far reaching, it can only happen over a longer period, and takes time to be revealed – making it difficult to differentiate between initiatives that work and those that don’t.

Measuring success and, in particular, transformation has to be continuous and based on realistic indicators that capture early signs, as well as tangible and intangible results of climate actions. For example, a water management project is focused on improving access to drinking water for the poor households (direct result). At the same time, if successful, it will enable women, who are usually tasked with sourcing water for the household, to have more time to pursue an additional economic activity (indirect result). To further the understanding around how to achieve transformative change, and how to track it, we recently conducted a study for the C40 Cities Finance Facility (CFF) to develop an operational definition of transformative impact with a set of measurable indicators.

Urban centres play a vital role in mitigating climate change effects and shifting to zero carbon development. Cities are engines of economic growth, yet, they also contribute a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions globally. The Cities Finance Facility helps ensure cities’ infrastructure is climate resilient, such as developing a cycle highway in Bogota, building an electric bus corridor in Mexico City, or expanding the watercourses in Durban. Through reviewing the CFF’s work in three pilot cities, we sought to understand how transformative change takes place, and to identify ways for other organisations working in the sector to develop or retrofit their vision of desired outcomes to support long-term transformation.

We identified three elements to consider while measuring transformative change:

  • Flexibility: Transformative change differs from city to city, and indicators for measuring transformation must be flexible to accurately capture any impact. The CFF builds the capacities of the city governments to prepare their own project plans and business cases, rather than developing these plans for them. This allows city leaders flexibility in prioritising different outcomes and deciding what outputs to measure to achieve them. In addition, cities are encouraged to prepare their own basic criteria against which to measure success or progress, and which can later be used to aggregate results across cities.
  • Indirect impact: While most climate initiatives focus on delivering immediate results, such as reducing emissions, they also indirectly support wider change, which is equally important. For example, a new 25 km cycle avenue in Bogota will help to reduce over 45 thousand tonnes of greenhouse gas emission by 2030. At the same time, this work supported a wider governance change, by helping to develop local capacity for factoring climate change considerations into cycling infrastructure and mobility projects in general.
  • Innovative approaches: To support sustainable transformation, new approaches and actions have to be developed. These usually result in development of new systems or tools that can be used and applied by a variety of sectors. For example, CFF’s support in developing Bogota’s cycling highway has also led to a new measuring tool being applied by the city to track its greenhouse gas emissions, and wider climate impact of its work.

Since transformative change often reflects large scale impact, climate initiatives like the Cities Finance Facility have an opportunity to use their learnings and influence other cities, practitioners, and policymakers. Only by looking at climate actions through a transformation lens, can we ensure that impact is sustainable and can reach those most in need.