OECD Secretary-General

Cities matter to the global climate policy agenda


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at the Copenhagen Climate Summit for Mayors.

15 December 2009
Copenhagen, Denmark

Mayors from around the world, Ladies and Gentlemen,

 is the greatest global challenge that we have ever faced and cities have a central role to play in tackling it.

Thank you, Lord Mayor, for bringing us together and for showing great leadership in confronting climate change.

In the past days many countries have renewed, strengthened or made new commitments to reduce GHG emissions. This is welcome, but not enough.

If we add all known pledges to reduce emissions, we are still far away from the reductions we need in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. We need to be more ambitious. Cities have a critical role to play. 

Almost 180,000 people are added to the urban population in the world each day. We expect this trend to accelerate, especially in developing countries, where cities will shift to CO2 intensive energy sources. As of 2015, the newly added urban population in China will be larger than the total population of countries like Germany, France or Mexico.  By 2025, there will be around 30 mega-cities, most of them in developing countries.

If urban policies are coherently integrated with environmental objectives, cities can contribute to reduce our dependence on carbon.

Mayors around the world are taking action and many of their programs have redefined the cutting edge. The OECD recognises the potential of local action and is working with local governments to forge a global collective response to climate change.

Let me share with you some reflections on cities and climate change.

Cities matter to the global climate policy agenda

Today the OECD releases Competitive Cities and Climate Change. Based on a large urban database, this report takes a look into new laboratories where the most innovative environmental programs are experimented in green building renewable energy, and a host of other fields.

Clearly, urbanisation is associated with higher CO2 emissions. But the report finds that urban development plans that favour higher density can help. For instance, Danish cities are denser than Finland’s by a factor of four. On top of using less gasoline for vehicles, Danish citizens consume 60% less electricity than the Finns.

Besides densification policies, market-based mechanisms, such as cap-and-trade schemes or carbon taxes and urban congestion charges, can also help lower the overall cost of emission abatement. So it is the policy mix that matters. We have estimated that under the most stringent IPCC scenario, the cost of abatement in terms of GDP for the whole OECD can be reduced by up to half if the right policy mix is implemented.


Multi-level governance is key

Our works also shows the importance of working across levels of government and making the most of the role and prerogatives of all relevant stakeholders.

Our report on Cities, Climate Change and Multilevel Governance shows that local governments are uniquely placed to tailor climate change programmes to specific local needs. We point to successful local solutions and practices, in Brazil, Japan and the US, among others. For example, the Kyoto City’s appliance labelling system, which reveals the environmental impact of air conditioning units, televisions, and appliances, is being disseminated throughout Japan. Portland’s Green tests new sustainable materials using Green Building approaches. Such solutions could be easily replicated at relatively low costs.  

The role of the private sector in supporting green infrastructure investment is also essential. Infrastructure investment needs worldwide will reach hundreds of billions of euros and much of this investment will take place in urban areas. We must harness this opportunity to achieve greener growth.

The good news is that many of you and your peers are taking steps to engage with the private sector. Berlin and Hannover, among others, have been working with private developers to construct and retrofit buildings to meet energy efficiency targets. And Seoul is working with private transport providers that use fuels sourced from renewable energy.

But one of my favorite projects is actually right here, in Copenhagen, whose reputation as the world’s best city for bicycles was achieved through a successful partnership with the private sector. This is one reason why 36% of Copenhageners commute by bike. And this approach is catching on in many other cities.
City governments can also forge joint bidding and purchasing agreements to green their procurement policies. Working with local business, joint bidding can help lower both business and city operating costs when acquiring low carbon technologies.

If the number of innovative partnership examples is growing, it is also thanks to the role of the C 40 network. It is a pleasure to see that the network’s president, Mayor David Miller from Toronto, is with us today.

However, partnerships are not always a panacea. Municipalities sometimes enter in public-private partnerships under the false impression that just because a project is “off the government books”, it will become more affordable. Yes, municipalities need to draw on the capacity of the private sector, but they need to do so in ways that improve service delivery, efficiency, and environmental stewardship. Our work Our work underscores the importance of well managed competitive bidding mechanisms if we want to make the best use of such partnerships.

Take the water sector, where much work remains to be done – with 880 million people still lacking access to clean water, and 2.5 billion lacking access to basic sanitation. The OECD checklist for action urges governments to use performance-based contracts in working with the private sector on infrastructure investments including on a small number of clear, easy-to-measure indicators; such indicators could be adapted to reflect the knowledge about climate change and risk.

Last June, Ministers of Economy, Finance, Trade and Foreign Affairs from 34 countries met at the OECD to adopt a Declaration on Green Growth. They agreed to develop frameworks for economic growth that would minimise environmental deterioration and enhance quality of life. Mayors have a key role to play in fostering green growth. Cities and regions can take the lead on long-term, locally tailored eco-innovation by encouraging private investment in energy-saving solutions. We recently produced a Review of Trans-border Urban Co-operation in the Pan Yellow Sea Region showing how Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cities are forming partnerships to work on eco innovation. The City of Kitakyushu, once the capital of steel and chemical industries of Japan, has worked with the private sector to catalyse the industrial recycling cluster, creating green jobs and become the environmental model city of Japan.

The contribution of cities to green growth will be the main focus of the OECD Roundtable of Mayors and Ministers on Urban Policy. I would like to invite you to Paris on late May 2010 to continue the rich discussions at this Climate Summit for Mayors.

Dear Mayors, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Tackling climate change demands a combination of political resolution, innovation and multilateral cooperation. All three ingredients are present here today. This is your time to bring new ideas to the climate change debate.

Your work in greening land use, transportation, and building codes clearly shows that you are entering a new era in urban policy. 

But we need to better understand what works and what does not work, and how the transition to a green growth economy can be achieved in practice. Cities can facilitate the creation of new green products, services and jobs – showing that green and growth can go hand in hand.

Consider the OECD an extension of your capacities, to help you benefit from innovative policy solutions taking place elsewhere.

Together let us make of this time of challenge, a future of resolve. 

Thank you.


  • Learn more about OECD's work on cities and climate change.


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