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The politics of climate change at the city level – Insights from a comparative study of Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Mexico City

This Guide summarises the the politics of climate-related decision-making in three Latin American mega-cities: Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Mexico City.
Dr. J Michael Cobb


Many experts and practitioners argue that there is a gap between policy debates on the relevance of local action on climate change, and political reality. Local governments the world over are making commitments and adopting policies and programmes to address climate change issues, but implementation is often weakened or stalled for different political reasons.

This Guide* explores the local politics of climate change, analysing some of these factors as well as the conditions that shape the development of local climate change policies in developing countries. It is based on the findings of comparative research into the climate politics of Buenos Aires in Argentina, São Paulo in Brazil, and Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, which are the largest urban areas in Latin America.

During the last decade, all three have taken steps towards developing an institutional and policy framework to address climate change issues. However, despite the relevance of these developments, climate change issues still play a relatively peripheral role in the local political agenda, while the implementation of climate policy commitments faces many political obstacles in all three cities.

Building on this comparative research, this Guide discusses four issues that are critical for the analysis of the local politics of climate change:

  1. links to local issues and agendas;
  2. the relevance of political leadership;
  3. building social coalitions to support climate policy initiatives; and
  4. the level of politicisation of climate issues at the city level.

*download the full text from the right-hand colum or via the links under further resources. See below for more about this CDKN Guide and its Key Messages.

About this Guide

  • CDKN aims to help decision- makers in developing countries design and deliver climate compatible development.

  • Supporting climate action at the city and sub-national scale is one of our priorities. This involves understanding the drivers for and barriers to climate action at the subnational level – and working in partnership with others to overcome barriers and innovate fresh solutions.

  • This CDKN Guide aims to support national planners and policy-makers, and the constellation of civil society and community actors in favour of positive change, to mobilise political commitment and resources in support of low-carbon and climate- resilient development in their localities, and to scale up success.

  • Key Messages

    Linking to local issues is a key factor in advancing the climate agenda at the city level. The extent to which a municipal climate policy is linked to local concerns helps to change the perception of costs and benefits of climate policies, and increases the chances of building broader social and political coalitions that support these measures.

    Climate champions play a key role in adopting climate policy commitments, but do not guarantee the implementation of the climate agenda. This underlines the need to build institutional capacity within city governments to implement climate policies, and to foster lasting political and social coalitions that can sustain those policies beyond electoral cycles and changes of political leadership.

    Building broader and stronger coalitions supporting climate compatible development requires going beyond traditional environmental constituencies. In the context of the cities of the global South, it is especially critical to approach and engage those sectors that are more vulnerable to climate events – usually the urban poor. Similarly, businesses engaged in low-carbon activities can be key actors in coalitions supporting different climate agendas.

    Climate change issues generally show low levels of politicisation at the city level. This means that climate change is neither an electorally salient issue, nor subject to competition between political parties. It is unclear, however, what the reasons for this low politicisation may be, or how they affect the development of local climate change agendas. More focused research is needed on this issue, as well as more generally on the links between climate issues and the dynamics of democratic politics at the city level. These are critical topics that need to be studied in order to gain a better insight into the conditions under which local climate policies can be adopted and implemented successfully.

    Suggested Citation

    Ryan, D and Ramirez Cuesta, A (2016) The politics of climate change at the city level: Insights from a comparative study of Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Mexico City. CDKN Guide. Climate and Development Knowledge Network: London, UK

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