The Future of our Cities and their Role in the Protection of the Seas

The environmental urge to protect the seas and overcome continued failed attempts to reach internationally binding conventions calls for more attention on the role that cities could have in supporting international lawmaking and negotiations.

International law is key in structuring relations between States. Considering there is not any form of authority superior to sovereign countries, international law and the institutions that enforce it establish the rules governing States’ engagement with each other to achieve common purposes. However, the role of cities in diplomacy should not be forgotten. Globalisation has contributed to an increased number of actors in the international realm, with capital cities assuming key positions given their large population density. Consider, for instance, New York, London, or Tokyo.

Cities are especially relevant in what concerns global changes, such as climate change and cybersecurity, among others. Seeing how cities are now emerging as actors, the pivotal role they play in global transformation could prove essential to overcome problems. The implementation of laws and regulations at a city level is easier since city officials have both authority and legitimacy. Other emerging actors, such as Big Tech companies, lack the latter characteristic, which prevents them from having meaningful influence. As such, cities have the right tools to promote actions that could have a real impact in the world.

Private companies and organisations, civil society, and interest groups, among others, have also gained prevalence and bring up similar questions of eligibility and representativity at international negotiation tables. However, cities, being governmental entities, have a unique set of characteristics which are an asset for a more participative role in international lawmaking. Chrystie Swiney (2020) defines the centrality of cities based on their centralised global wealth, population, trade innovations and threats. Moreover, cities acquire soft power through the use of soft law instruments, strategies and alliances. This allows cities to contribute to the implementation and enforcement of global agendas. For example, cities are taking the lead in solving critical challenges of the 21st century, namely by reaching agreements on climate change. 

In Europe, cities account for 75% of the population and generate around 85% of its GDP. Therefore, they play an essential role in meeting climate change and economic targets. The Urban Agenda for the EU, established by the Pact of Amsterdam, aims to improve cooperation between Member States, cities, and the European Commission. The Pact of Amsterdam defined several priority topics, including the inclusion of migrants and refugees, circular economy, climate adaptation (including green infrastructure solutions), energy transition, among others. European ports are a good example of the role of cities’ integration within the EU. Ports employ over 3 million people and are crucial for the EU’s trade with the rest of the world. However, they present several challenges, especially in terms of their environmental impacts. To tackle this, the Urban Agenda defined by the European Commission maximises cities’ role in fighting current economic and social challenges. The circular economy, energy transition, air quality, climate adaptation, and sustainable use of land are among the priorities set out in the Agenda. Together with this, the European Green Deal aims to transition the EU towards a more competitive, green and circular economy that is not dependent on non-renewable resources. A key to achieving this is engaging several scales of government, among them cities.

Cities consume most of the world’s energy and gas; however, it is here that citizens can engage in actions to actively combat climate change. Local governments are the main actors, especially in what regards the response to climate change, as exemplified by the EU Mission “100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030”. The European Commission announced that 100 European cities would be participating in the EU Mission, together with 12 cities from associated countries. This results from the challenges posed by the dominant trends of globalisation, urbanisation, and decentralisation.

In the EU, the main constraint cities face is the integration of peripheral, small, and medium cities in the decision-making processes related to European urban policy. Despite the recognition of the importance of these cities, which also present opportunities to generate wealth and tackle the current challenges, there is no specific policy addressing these smaller cities.

Against this backdrop, international lawmaking in the field of law of the seas represents a particularly interesting scenario. The protection of the seas is a concern that transcends borders, as demonstrated by the case of ports. Moreover, it is becoming a pressing matter due to human activities – both on land and at sea – that exert pressure on the ocean, namely pollution, seabed damage, overexploitation, and biodiversity loss, among others. In recent years, the international community has rallied to take action to protect the seas, as was the case with the UN Ocean Conference held in Lisbon in 2022. However, even after the Conference, attempts to pass a global ocean protection treaty have failed. This shows that States still struggle to agree on issues such as fisheries or deep-sea mining, which in turn raises the question of whether the answer to the problem could lie in a more solid bottom-up approach.

The answer to the protection of the seas could be “First, think global and act local”. Despite several international agreements, few to none have considered the importance of localised approaches. Most are under national levers, but cities are the main actors investing in infrastructure and nature-based solutions, and can more easily gather the approval of local communities. Cities play an essential role in the conservation of natural resources. There are urban-ocean links that need to be strengthened to protect the oceans (especially climate change and loss of biodiversity). This requires the inclusive participation of local governments in global efforts and decisions. Outside the European Union and at the international level, such as the United Nations, representation is still on a national level and cities do not have the opportunity to engage in discussions. Nevertheless, Sustainable Development Goal 11 focuses on the future of cities and efforts to make them safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable. Despite the recognition of the importance of their integration, there is still a long way to go until cities can fully participate as actors in international negotiations and lawmaking.

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