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ICLEI USA’s COP26 Delegation Brings the Voice of U.S. Cities and Regions to the United Nations Climate Conference

Keep 1.5 Alive

Although the United Kingdom, host to the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate, gave the event its official slogan of “uniting the world to tackle climate change”, by the end of the conference’s second week, it’s unofficial tagline resounded throughout the halls.

Hosted each year by a different country, the COP is the UN’s highest-level meeting on climate and convenes presidents and prime ministers from across the world to hash out the details for combating climate change. This year, the UK Presidency and world leaders were under enormous pressure from local governments, NGOs, businesses and millions of people around the world to deliver updates to the Paris Agreement that can secure a future for our planet that limits warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The stakes were incredibly high.

ICLEI USA brought a delegation of five local leaders — Mayor of Des Moines Frank Cownie, Mayor of Miami-Dade County Daniella Levine Cava, Mayor of Pittsburgh Bill Peduto, Commissioner of Travis County Brigid Shea, and Councilmember of Maui County Kelly King — to ensure the voice of U.S. local governments were heard in the negotiations.

Watch our takeaways webinar, “I was at COP26 and here is what U.S. local governments need to know” to hear directly from the delegates. Watch recording here.

What is ICLEI’s Role in COP?

ICLEI has a special role in international climate processes, serving at the global level as the focal organization to the United Nations (UN) for cities, towns and regions. In fact, ICLEI serves this role not only for climate change, but also for nature and land use.

This distinction for ICLEI has a history dating back to the early 1990s, when the UN hosted the forest Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the summit, the world established three environmental “conventions” on climate, biodiversity, and desertification. Nine major constituency groups to the UN, representing women, labor, youth and more, serve as voices of their interests to these conventions — and ICLEI is proud to serve this role for our member and nonmember local governments on each theme.

U.S. elected officials can be involved in the climate, biodiversity, and desertification COPs each year as part of their community’s membership with ICLEI.

ICLEI USA Delegation Brings Messages to the U.S. Federal Government and United Nations

ICLEI USA delegation meets with U.S. National Climate Advisor, Gina McCarthy to discuss federal support to local climate initiatives. Left to right: Councilmember Kelly Takaya King, Maui County; Commissioner Brigid Shea, Travis County; Mayor Frank Cownie, City of Des Moines; Gina McCarthy; Mayor Sylvester Turner, City of Houston; and Mayor Rick Kriseman, City of St. Petersburg.

ICLEI USA delegates in Glasgow advocated that U.S. cities and counties are at the forefront of climate action — and that their efforts are largely the reasons the United States was able to submit a stepped-up national climate plan ahead of COP26. Indeed, ICLEI analysis shows that of those nations that submitted more ambitious climate plans, more than 70% were able to do so by collaborating with local governments.

“We are very excited to see the Biden Administration step up and say that not only are they in, but they are willing to work in a multilevel fashion for all of us to succeed in this,” Mayor Frank Cownie of Des Moines, who serves as ICLEI President globally, told the opening press conference on October 31, which coincided with World Cities Day for the first time. Des Moines is grappling with climate impacts following recent years of climate-induced weather disaster. “I think that this really excites us, that we can make progress, that from the national level, to the state level, to the county level to the local level, we’re all in this,” he says. “We all see the opportunity. We need to share our best practices, we need to declare a climate emergency at all levels.”

ICLEI’s leader spoke at more than 50 events, including in the U.S. federal government’s Climate Center, the U.S. Climate Action Center, and the Multilevel Action Pavilion, which ICLEI hosted in partnership with the Scottish Government.

Maui County Councilmember Kelly Takaya King, who serves on ICLEI USA Board, spoke alongside EPA Administrator Michael Regan in an event hosted by Japan, saying “What we’re trying to drive home is the need for collaboration across all levels of government — city, county, state, and federal. And also collaboration horizontally from county to county, and working with cities in other states.”

In addition to speaking, the ICLEI USA delegation met with U.S. and international climate leaders. During one meeting with U.S. National Climate Advisor, Gina McCarthy, the delegation outlined what support U.S. cities and counties need from the federal level.

  • We can learn from the experience from previous rounds of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program: “Skip the state,” Commissioner of Travis County Brigid Shea, who serves as ICLEI USA Board Chair, told McCarthy. “When money gets to local governments, we know how to spend it.”
  • Recognize that state and local politics impact availability of finance. For instance, some state governors may take hostile positions on climate or toward individual cities. Direct finance to local governments ensures that climate-related funding delivers on programs that benefit communities quickly.
  • Remove restrictions on resilience finance, such that only the largest sized cities have access to funding or that local governments must meet cumbersome pre-approvals prior to accessing post-disaster funding. Climate action must be delivered in communities of all shapes and sizes, rural and urban, and including at the county level.

‘Multi-level Action’ is the New Normal for the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement includes the historic mention of local governments, recognizing the importance that cities and regions play as the first responders on climate change. But coming into COP26, key issues around adaptation and finance contained in the Article 6 of the agreement remained to be resolved.

By the end of the two weeks, ICLEI’s advocacy efforts paid off: The final draft text for the Paris Agreement includes reference to local governments multiple times as well as the need for multilevel action. ICLEI USA’s leaders are returning to the U.S. to take the work forward, summarized in a four-point call to action:

  1. Ensure that collaboration across all levels of government is the new normal for the Paris Agreement
  2. Invest climate-related funding from the federal government and the private sector directly in communities by working through nonprofit networks, such as ICLEI
  3. Make environmental justice the core of climate action, including through integrated climate planning that addresses gender, food, nature, and health
  4. Get even more local governments in the ICLEI USA network involved
Councilmember Kelly King of Maui County, Hawai’i and ICLEI USA Board Member (second from right) brings a call for a circular economy to bolster coastal communities’ resilience in the U.S. Center, the United States’ federal pavilion during an ICLEI-coordinated event at COP26. Also pictured, from left: Mayor Todd Gloria, City of San Diego; Crystal Bergemann, Senior Advisor on Climate, Office of the Secretary at U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Mayor Michael P. Cahill, City of Beverly, Mass.

Bringing the COP26 Outcomes Home to U.S. Communities

As we close 2021, local-state-federal climate action collaborations are moving into gear.  With the success of the ICLEI150 Race to Zero and passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, ICLEI members possess a science-based emission reduction target to support their funding requests to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) and a strong mandate to advocate that state regulators and legislators enact policies to move the nation’s electricity grid to a minimum of 60% carbon-free electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile, as local leaders address the urgency of the climate emergency, ICLEI is ramping up the Race to Zero companion campaign, Race to Resilience, in 2022. This integration to local climate action provides cities and counties with a holistic, multilevel approach to sustainability. COP27 is already announced for November 2022, hosted by Egypt, where climate adaptation will feature prominently.

If you’re a local leader interested in being involved in ICLEI’s global advocacy work, contact Kale at