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Mayors’ Dialogue: From City Leadership to Global Impact


  • Eduardo Paes, Former Mayor, City of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Gregor Robertson, Mayor, City of Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Shauna Sylvester, Director, Centre for Dialogue, Simon Fraser University (Moderator)

This session, moderated by the SFU Centre for Dialogue’s Director, Shauna Sylvester, brought together two champions of local leadership and international city cooperation.

Former mayor of Rio de Janeiro Eduardo Paes spearheaded a massive expansion of public transit for the city’s nearly seven million inhabitants and formerly served as the chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Mayor Gregor Robertson is a vocal proponent of Vancouver’s Renewable City Strategy and serves on the board for the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy.

Cities, an international moment

The global movement for city leadership on renewables and energy efficiency is healthier than ever. At least that’s according to Mayor Robertson who said, “Paris [COP21] was a key moment, particularly for cities and nations. We were able to come together and find common ground and commitment moving forward.”

He explained that with over 7,000 local governments now reporting emissions to the Global Covenant of Mayors, there’s increasing connection and momentum between mayors and cities around the world.

Bringing his perspective as the former mayor of Rio and chair of C40, Paes said, “There’s this thing about ‘mayors should be ruling the world’… we’re closer to people and more connected the impact we can achieve isn’t just about carbon emissions.”

Paes referenced C40’s research, which surfaced that cities can take nearly 10,000 actions to both address climate change and improve the lives of residents. He added that U.S. President Donald Trump’s energy policies have inspired cities all around the U.S. to become more aggressive in reducing emissions.

Opportunities to learn

Both Paes and Robertson agreed that municipalities should experiment with energy solutions and share their knowledge to inspire others.

While Paes acknowledged that cities in the Global South face unique challenges in terms of inequality and lack of infrastructure, he was optimistic about the value of city networks.

“There are good solutions that can be taken from one city to another,” he said, “The BRT [bus rapid transit] is a Brazilian example from Curitiba. The mayor said ‘we don’t have the money to build a subway’.” Paes explained that Curitiba took advantage of the options it had and created the world’s first BRT network, which was quickly copied by other cities. “Look at another example,” Paes suggested, ”bike sharing. Maybe five years ago there were ten cities with it. Now everywhere you go there’s bike sharing, it’s amazing!”

Mayor Robertson also spoke warmly of leadership from Latin American municipalities, “Bogotá was inspirational to cities all over the world.” He lauded Bogotá’s Mayor Peñalosa, who established new public spaces and transportation options, which helped to address various forms of inequality in the city. “No matter how developed you are, that’s the power of different cities using different approaches to tackle different challenges,” explained Mayor Robertson.

Not just about climate

Cities are tackling their energy and transportation challenges for a broad array of reasons.

“Can you imagine spending two hours each way, four hours a day stuck on public transit?” asked Paes, “Or if you live in a favela [Brazilian informal settlement] in the rain?” Paes, as the former mayor of Rio, was adamant that local governments are responsible for addressing “everyday climate change problems,” particularly since Latin America is both highly urbanized and susceptible to climate change impacts in coastal areas.

Mayor Robertson asserted that Vancouver’s energy efficiency and fossil fuel phase-out policies can be traced to community benefit: “[Vancouver’s] at the leading edge of it, we see a lot of advantage. Job creation, healthier for everybody.” He cited that Vancouverites are making good choices with regard to transportation and the city’s green building code, which is a leader in North America. Mayor Robertson said that Vancouver’s new building energy efficiency and electric vehicle policies would help bolster affordability.

On economic opportunity, the mayor offered the example of Canada’s largest apartment built to Passive House standard, which is under construction in East Vancouver. He said, “We’re seeing industry embrace the opportunity. World class professionals in Vancouver are exporting the products and technologies and services to make buildings energy efficient.“

But Mayor Robertson also outlined that other municipalities face steep energy challenges. “But there are many cities stuck, totally reliant on fossil fuels, with population and car growth off the charts and extremely polluted,” he said.

Challenges and advice

According to both panelists, the energy transition road can be bumpy and fraught with blind curves.

Paes explained that, as mayor of Rio, his largest challenge was communications, which is a problem that many cities face. “When you go to a country like Brazil, you have so many health and social issues and inequality issues,” he said, “Are we gonna waste our time dealing with climate change?” Paes advised that cities should frame the issue of energy around benefits for a broader constituency—and not just environmentalism. “It has a lot to do with everyday life,” he said.

For his part, and speaking to challenges and advice, Mayor Robertson spoke to frustration with fossil fuel interests at both the national and local levels. He acknowledged that while more senior levels of government are susceptible to this type of pressure, the City of Vancouver’s policies have also drawn criticism from industry. “In Vancouver we’re burning natural gas instead of coal, which has been branded as a clean fuel. We know it’s not a clean fuel for climate,” stated Mayor Robertson, “we have to get off of natural gas in our buildings.”

The mayor’s advice? Action and communication: “Doing the right thing, looking after our planet and creating all of these amazing business opportunities. There’s a great message there to communicate. We have to broadcast that… loudly.”