Indonesia and now Thailand are mulling over plans to shift their capitals. But relocation cannot be a long-term solution to the problems of cities facing urban congestion and pollution as well as threats from sea-level rise and weather extremes.

Other cities around the globe are taking a different approach. New York made headlines recently by becoming the largest municipality in the US to declare a “climate emergency”. In fact, this July didn’t just break temperature records, it also witnessed the highest number of climate emergency declarations: nearly 190 city and national governments made them, demonstrating their recognition of the growing urgency According to Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation in Action, 987 declarations have been made in 18 countries in the last two years, spearheaded by local city councils in the US, the UK and Australia.

Although symbolic, a climate emergency declaration should instil a sense of urgency that is much needed in climate action. It demonstrates the political commitment and preparedness of local leaders to respond to the risks of climate change. It can also catalyse city-wide awareness and community action.

Some local governments have gone further. Take London for example. In December 2018, the London Assembly passed a motion calling on the mayor to declare a climate emergency and adopt an ambitious climate plan. The Greater London Authority has pushed for a slew of measures this year, including setting up an ultra-low emission zone in central London, investing in low-carbon technologies, retrofitting buildings for greater energy efficiency and signing a charter to make London the “first national park city”.

Asia being left behind

In stark contrast, cities of the South seem to be mired in policy inertia when it comes to climate action. Asia is home to 60% of the world’s urban population – but only two Asian local governments have declared a climate emergency: the city council of Bacolod and the municipality of Tolosa, homes to only 561 875 and 20 978 residents, respectively. In South America, only one declaration has been made, by the national government of Argentina. None have been made in Africa to date.

Two women walk down a flooded street in Bangkok. Photo: Arisa Chattasa / Unsplash.

While primary cities gain greater visibility as early adopters or as models to be emulated in global city networks, emerging or secondary cities often lack the financial investments, political autonomy or the human resources to act on climate change adaptation. Based on our ongoing research on sustainable urban governance, previous experience of disaster seems to be the prime driver for the few cases of climate action even in emerging cities in Asia and Africa. But we shouldn’t have to wait for a disaster to act – the costs of inaction are too great.

Cities take centre stage

Cities are now taking centre stage in global climate politics, as they concentrate people, resources and climate risks. The importance of municipal governments in climate action has been emphasized since the Brundtland Commission report of 1987, and reiterated in Sustainable Development Goal 11, calling for safe, inclusive and resilient cities. Governments can now turn to global city networks and private service providers to get access to resources, knowledge and thought leadership, given the right policy and legislative support. They have a chance to lead, especially in countries where institutional barriers and issues of scale delay coordinated and speedy action at the national level.

Most cities in the Global South face the twin burdens of addressing developmental concerns and tackling disproportionate risks from climate change. Instead of prioritizing one at the expense of the other, they can lead climate action by integrating their economic and sustainability transitions.

Local leaders have a chance to influence regional and national policy. They can push for action by backing up their declarations with time-bound and localized climate action plans.

The many ways that municipalities can future-proof their cities include investing in public transport, protecting urban green spaces, reducing urban sprawl by design, enforcing building and land-use regulations, improving climate awareness, disseminating disaster- and risk-related information, all the while ensuring inclusivity in planning.

Take for example Bangkok, which in partnership with the 100 Resilient Cities network, has already developed a resilience strategy focused on strengthening flood resilience, institutional capacity and climate awareness. Bangkok has its Climate Change Master Plan and enjoys support from national frameworks such as the Thailand Climate Change Master Plan and the National Adaptation Plan. The groundwork is there.

What’s urgently needed now is implementation. It is time for Bangkok to lead the way among Asian megacities and declare a climate emergency and take immediate and concrete actions towards the 1.5ºC target.