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Cities and Just Transitions: analysing climate action at the local level

Rishika Das Roy

Cities are increasingly driving ambitious bottom-up action on climate change, delivering commitments to low-carbon and climate-resilient economic growth. However, there is growing recognition that the transition away from a fossil fuel-dependent economic model is going to affect different groups of people in different ways. Hence there is a need to tackle the challenges faced by communities and workers as they shift to sustainable livelihoods and ensure the benefits of low-carbon development are equally distributed.

C40 cities are making commitments to integrate principles of inclusion and equity within the implementation of their Climate Action Plans, including under the banner of a ‘Global Green New Deal’ (GGND) and a ‘Just Transition’ (JT). We did an analysis looking at the formal powers and informal sources of influence cities have to implement for equitable climate action. The analysis is based on interviews and document review from a sample of 15 C40 cities: Accra, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Durban, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, New York, Rio De Janeiro, Paris, Seattle, Tshwane, and Vancouver.


The idea that climate action needs to be inclusive and equitable has become increasingly prominent in debates around climate change and calls for a ‘Just Transition’ (JT). JT is primarily a moral and an economic argument to ensure that the transition is not only green but also ‘just’. This includes examining who has access to the new green jobs and the differential impact of moving away from fossil fuels on marginalised communities. For example, the impact on employment of coal-mine workers when transitioning away from coal, the affordability of renewable energy for low-income households and equitable access to electric vehicles in a context of rising fuel prices. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted deep inequalities of our societies and how racial and ethnic minorities, women and low-income groups faced a bigger impact in terms of job and income losses. It is therefore even more important that these groups do not face further burden from the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy.

While the concept of JT is not new, the publication of the GGND principles put further attention on the issue of equity and climate change. It called on governments to reduce greenhouse gases, without sacrificing development, by combining three objectives of economic recovery, poverty eradication, and reduced carbon emissions and ecosystem degradation (UNEMG, 2011). C40 established a GGND pilot initiative to support over 20 cities to put in practice the principles of equitable climate action. The cities involved have identified a range of priority actions: for example, mainstreaming informal labour into the waste management sector in Accra, energy poverty in Barcelona, and managing the socio-economic impact of transitioning out of coal-based infrastructure in Warsaw.

This study had the challenging ‘ask’ to look at the formal powers of a sample of C40 cities, and the limits and constraints in these powers, as well as other levels of government and stakeholders who are central to decision-making and/or hold influence over the process. The power analysis is organised in terms of the functions or capabilities required to deliver equitable urban climate action. It was a challenge to analyse ‘which’ set of formal and informal powers would lead to ‘what’ climate action!

Our approach

Our study looks specifically at the powers available to cities beyond the ‘climate powers’ to deliver inclusive and equitable climate action. It looks at the formal powers of the city, and limits and constraints in these powers, as well as other levels of government and stakeholders who are central to decision-making and/or hold influence over the process. It also explores opportunities for the mayors to use their informal power and influence to build partnerships and reach out to stakeholders who are crucial to delivering equitable climate action. The findings are therefore limited to the contexts of the cities studied, and would likely change if other cities were included, particularly those from other regions and countries with different institutional structures.

In addition to interviews with city officials and C40 advisors, the analysis includes interviews with civil society organisations, technical support agencies and think tanks. These are Sustainable Energy Africa, Friend of the Earth UK, Greenlining Institute, Equitable Cities Consulting, and Eurocities to name a few.


This study helped identify what types of powers are required to implement inclusive and equitable climate action in line with the GGND and JT principles at a mayoral level. It explains how cities in different regions are overcoming barriers and adopting innovative institutional mechanisms and governance structures and how mayors have used political actions beyond institutional structures to fill power voids.

There are examples of how cities have used their informal influence to overcome gaps in their formal power, to translate broad commitments on equitable urban climate action into practical on-the-ground actions. Some examples from different cities include:

  • In South Africa, five cities have been advocating the South Africa Presidential Climate Change Commission on support for equitable climate action relevant to their cities.
  • In Los Angeles, the city is mobilising private sector resources to launch an electric car sharing programme in low-income neighbourhoods to ensure no one is left out of the rapid electrification of transportation.
  • In Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, they are mainstreaming equitable climate actions within the Integrated Development Plan of the city to ensure resources allocated from the province and centre are channelled to these priorities.

Our work is expected to influence key policy areas and actions (in terms of advocacy and funding opportunities) necessary for GGND and JT implementation in low- and middle-income countries. A toolkit has been developed by C40 based on these findings.

We would like to thank the C40 JT Team, Gunjan Jhunjhunwala, Divya Prakash Vyas, and Kritika Singh for their contribution to this study.