Growing up in Turkey following the country’s 1980 coup d’etat, Yunus Arikan is no stranger to momentous change. As he studied in Ankara in the early 1990’s, Arikan recalls people taking to the streets, protesting over issues like nuclear power and regional gold mines. “It was a moment of ‘we need really transformative solutions,’” Arikan says, a sentiment that he has carried through his diverse environmental engineering career into his role as an advocate at this year’s COP27, the United Nations conference on climate change held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
The world’s population is increasingly concentrated in urban areas, many of which are facing unprecedented threats from natural disasters. Arikan says that makes it more important than ever for climate summits to consider practical solutions on a local level. While international treaties are essential, adaptations will also be required at every level of government, down to city councils.
“When there’s a flood coming to your city, you don’t call your national minister of environment, you call your mayor,” Arikan says. Many are already seeing climate impacts in their own neighborhoods, which means that’s also where regulatory changes can have the most immediate—and ultimately largest—impacts, he adds.
International policies concerning the climate crisis can often feel distant and hard to understand, while more visible climate actions at the local level can have a tangible impact in peoples’ lives. Whether it’s seeing your mayor cycling to work rather than driving or adding solar panels to municipal buildings, local action can be inspiring.
Arikan has seen that dynamic play out in communities across Germany, including in his own city of Bonn, where public pressure helped get a climate emergency declaration passed in July of 2019, with support across the political spectrum. These types of local actions serve as an acknowledgment that the climate crisis should have a role in shaping all policies, putting sustainability at the center of development. “That is in fact the easiest path for climate action,” Arikan says, “With one decision, you can influence the future for generations.”
As the head of global policy and advocacy at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, Arikan is well-versed in how much power local governments have in shaping climate decisions. Regional economic planning about how technology is used, or which industries produce goods, Arikan says, can help shape “cities that are safe for nature, and safe for livelihoods.”
Taking this focus on local action to this year’s COP27, Arikan and a group of more than 150 mayors, governors, and climate speakers marched to an event held for high-level diplomatic talks. Walking through the area in business attire with signs saying “Walk the Talk,” this wasn’t a typical climate demonstration. Arikan says that at past meetings, local governments have felt excluded from international dialogues. But “a city in China, a city in Germany, and a city in New York are the same when it comes to climate disasters,” he says—”and the solutions as well.”
Many of the conversations at the conference focused on how the dire consequences of the climate crisis are unduly falling on countries in the Global South, who are less equipped to respond to the effects of natural disasters. Pakistan’s recent extreme flooding offers a poignant example. But even affluent countries can struggle to after extreme events, Arikan says. He points to the 2021 flooding in Germany, and Hurricane Sandy in New York City in the United States, as instances where impacted regions may not have fully recovered without federal aid.
Navigating the politics of the climate crisis is complicated, but COP27 felt different to Arikan, who has participated in environmental conferences since he was a student sitting in the university computer room, trading emails with people at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. “It was the first time that the Global South was in the driver’s seat,” Arikan says, with rich nations finally agreeing to some financial responsibility for the climate costs to more vulnerable countries. The commitment was an historic step, although follow through is still needed to actually create a functional loss and damage fund.
That’s not a new problem: Implementing meaningful climate action globally has proven elusive since the groundbreaking Paris Agreement in 2015. Without a way to enforce countries’ climate goals, Arikan says, “COPs are just the tip of the iceberg. The real work happens at home.” The best way to get involved is by engaging with local government from the neighborhood level on up, he adds.
There is no one-size-fits all solution, which makes bringing climate solutions to every part of society crucial. At the conference in Egypt, ICLEI, UN-Habitat, and the COP presidency sponsored a new program to promote this kind of multi-level government action called Sustainable Urban Resilience for the next Generation Initiative (SURGe).The plan emphasizes sustainable urban development, and planning for climate adaptations from the ground up. “It will not be easy, but it is the only way forward,” Arikan says.
Reflecting on COP27’s accomplishments, Arikan thinks significant strides were made. But he notes that while 45,000 people participated in the event, in the digital age, “we have to turn every city hall into a COP venue. That is the only way we can bring real life experiences to the diplomatic halls.”
This year’s conference frustrated many scientists and activists by ending without an agreement on a path to phasing out fossil fuels, but Arikan remains hopeful. “People are starting to assess the future of their governments, whether they’re serious about climate or not.”
On an individual level, “some things are beyond our control,” he says, but that doesn’t mean people can’t make an important difference through their everyday decisions. “Everybody can play a role in climate action,” he says. “It’s a question of choices. How do you want to live?”
“We as citizens have the power.”
ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability is a global network working with more than 2500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. Active in 125+ countries, we influence sustainability policy and drive local action for low emission, nature-based, equitable, resilient and circular development.