Urgent Action to Carry Out COP26 Goals Locally

There are several takeaways from the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) which concluded last Saturday in Glasgow. Progress was made on several issues, and important multilateral agreements and initiatives were announced regarding coal, methane, forest conservation, and fossil fuels.

However, the Glasgow Climate Pact failed to reach the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and achieve a path for global net zero carbon emissions by 2050. While the COP26 presents a mixed bag of results, it’s clear that the goals set at the global conference must be carried out with urgent action and advocacy at the local level; actions that rise up to pressure elected leaders to achieve more, faster.

Across the US, and right here in the Chicago region, we must act with urgency to achieve more against the devastating effects of the climate emergency on local infrastructure, economic development, and public health, especially in underserved communities on the south and west sides of Chicago and their neighboring suburbs.

Huge opportunities for blue-green infrastructure lay ahead for the Chicago River watershed. For instance, we can act to transform the 30 percent of land surface on the south side of Chicago that is asphalt alone. As Mary Pat McGuire, landscape architecture professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, pointed out at our 2020 River Summit, “The surface of a highly-engineered city is effectively a headwater of the system where upwards of 80% of the land surfaces are impervious in some way,” said McGuire. “This is a huge opportunity for redesign, for retrofitting cities; to re-think the surface of a city as a headwater. Green-blue adaptations can be the game-changer and it requires institutional leadership to do it.” 

For green infrastructure (GI) maintenance and workforce development, regional and local coordination among NGOs, philanthropic organizations, and communities is essential to build sustainable, long-term GI partnerships. Large-scale solutions that include the sharing of services to maintain green infrastructure are needed to protect community assets, reduce costs for municipalities, and provide equitable workforce development opportunities for residents.

These are just a few policy examples of what must be done in to identify and prioritize multi-benefit green infrastructure investments where they are needed the most. To that end, Friends led the initiative last year to launch of the Chicago-Calumet River Watershed Council. The 16-member Watershed Council is a diverse set of partner organizations collaborating across traditional jurisdictions –from northern Lake County to southern Cook County – to integrate nature into the built environment, maximizing multiple ecological, social, and climate resiliency objectives from a watershed perspective.

Our collective responsibility is to demand more action from our state and local leaders, and to lead the cross-jurisdictional work to secure climate resiliency throughout the Chicago region and across the Midwest.