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Micro-Multilateralism : Are cities saving UN Ideals?

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A block of houses in Beijing. With over 21 million inhabitants, China's capital is a megacity. Bild: dpa

According to calculations, 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities in 2050. Will cities be able to solve international political problems? A guest article.

          6 Min.

          The UN Charter focuses on states as the central actors in the international system, defining as a multilateral action when three nation-states cooperate in a field of common interest. Today, nation-states are increasingly paralysed into inaction due to political divisions or great power rivalries. Hence, they are failing to effectively utilise collective action. Subnational entities are stepping into this vacuum to deliver on core functions embedded in the UN Charter, redefining effective collaboration on a transnational scale – what we call micro-multilateralism.

          Cities have emerged as particularly skilful champions of micro-multilateralism, even though their role as independent actors is not specifically addressed by the UN Charter. With 70 per cent of the world’s population projected to be urban by 2050, cities are now effectively tackling transnational issues once the prerogative of states.

          Though the UN system has actively fostered connections and collaborations between cities for decades – in the Sustainable Development Goals, as part of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) and the UN Safer Cities Programme, for example – these have all been top-down efforts, where the UN structure has served as the convening entity. Cities remained a subset of the nation-state rather than actors in their own right.

          But now, we are witnessing rapid growth in a different model of urban collaboration: cities have realized that migration, climate change and the threat of pandemic disease and terrorism will affect them disproportionately compared to other areas in nation-states, because urban density magnifies and catalyses the negative impact of these transnational phenomena. Driven by a newfound sense of self-interest and a sense of urgency, cities are forming their own transnational action networks. The most prominent example concerns the fight against climate change: the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40).

          Launched in 2005 by the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, as a loose convention of megacities, C40 has evolved to include over ninety cities – including Paris, New York City, Cairo, Beijing, Dhaka and Medellin – with a total of 650 million inhabitants. It now maintains a permanent secretariat in London, it participated in the UN climate change negotiations and it has initiated concrete, local, scalable projects that contribute to the goal of combatting the impact of climate change.

          In its earliest incarnation, C40 served as a platform for cities to showcase – in a friendly form of competition – their ideas for reducing CO2 emissions, driving down the temperature in cities, creating resource efficient waste and water management systems and designing transportation infrastructure that minimise congestion and emissions. Over time, the network has transformed itself into a hub that provides a suite of services to support cities in addressing their most urgent problems, including offering technical assistance, peer-to-peer exchange mechanisms, communications and lobbying tools, and research and knowledge-management services. This helped cities develop a metrics- and results based collective voice to demand greater action on the nation-state and supranational levels.

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