|The world’s metropolises, with more than half the world population, could hold key to global climate progress.|
Humans have officially made their home in the concrete jungle. Ours is the first generation in which most of the world’s population lives in cities.
With 6 billion people on the planet, and 2 billion more expected within 20 years, the race to our cities and the slums and vast sprawl surrounding some of them will only accelerate. Already, our metropolises — 21 already have populations of 10 million or more — consume about three-quarters of the world’s energy, releasing vast quantities of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that warm the planet.
Protecting our climate, in other words, means redefining what urban means. Yet much coverage of climate action dismisses local and state government actions in favor of splashy (or, recently, dismal) international announcements and would-be efforts.
That’s a mistake, suggests the Pew Foundation, which credits cities and local governments for having cut more than 23 million tons of greenhouse gasses — equivalent to the emissions produced by 1.8 million households — in 2009 alone. In fact, if just local governments in the U.S. meet their emissions targets, the country will be well on its way to meeting the Obama administration’s official emissions target of 17 percent below 2005 levels within a decade. That means voluntary action alone by 155 cities and counties could meet 10 percent of the U.S.’s national goal.
“Generally, cities are the place where it’s going to happen,” says K.C. Boyce, who oversees the U.S. membership program for ICLEI USA — Local Governments for Sustainability, an organization of local governments worldwide dedicated to urban sustainability and lowering GHG emissions. The group is betting that cities, including the 600 on ICLEI’s rosters in the U.S., will lead their nations toward a low-carbon future. “Land use, zoning, and transportation are the nexus that has the potential to have a real impact because it’s about where we live, how we live, and how we travel,” says Boyce. “These are the fundamental inputs into GHG of a region.”
Cities have a unique power to drive immediate change involving issues such as public transportation, but they also can help influence prosaic long-term land use planning (think about all those interminable city council meetings) to realize truly sustainable cities. No futuristic visions of cities are needed (although a few such urban experiments are rising in places like Abu Dhabi).
For now, the realty is more mundane: asphalt recycling and better insulation in buildings, timers for coffee makers and telecommuting, light sensors, and water conservation.
Local governments are tackling GHG emissions in any way they can: Boston, for instance, has mandated the nation’s first green building code for private projects. In Gainesville, Florida, the city utility pays a premium for solar power from peoples’ homes fed back into the grid. In Babylon, N.Y., homeowners are eligible for loans to make their homes more efficient, and those loans are entirely repaid through cost savings in their power bills.
But to create low- or zero-emission cities — among the only ways to avoid dangerous climate change if the objective is to cut GHG emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, the target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — more revolutionary changes are needed.
At least 1,000 cities in the U.S. and around the world are adopting targets and taking action, says ICLEI. Cities are cooperating internationally, offering financial incentive programs for clean power plants and home retrofits, and planning growth and emission cuts as much as half-a-century down the road.
Groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Center, the Global Carbon Project‘s Urban and Regional Carbon Management Initiative, and a constellation of universities’ engineering, urban planning, and climate science and policy departments have sprung up to support these efforts. This bottom-up approach seems to be gaining steam, despite the inability of climate talks in Washington or internationally to produce a binding climate strategy.
Given deadlocked federal and international efforts, cities could be the first drop in a sea change of how societies reduce their climate impact.
A big question, says Professor Jim Hall, a civil engineer at the U.K.’s Newcastle University and the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, involves just how to manage a system as complex as a modern city.
“There are no silver bullets here,” Hall emphasizes. “One needs to put together strategic portfolios of measures. We are trying to make the case by taking an integrated approach to the built environment, infrastructure, and land use, bringing those three areas together. Timely decisions now can get us on a more sustainable track.”
Breakthroughs to cut emissions ever more steeply, he argues, will require demonstrations in the urban laboratory. Policies and technologies can be combined in variations across the world, and the best will show the way in the future, he says; no other forum has quite the same concentration of human wealth and talent. “Cities are centers of creativity,” Hall says. “The rate of growth and change within cities provides real opportunities for innovation for climate protection.”
Whether scientists and engineers can deliver the needed ingenuity and technology is less worrisome than the messy, complex questions of governance for cities to change their unsustainable ways. Communication, as much as technology, underlies this effort to update the urban concept from one that evolved out of the industrial revolution to the digital one. First, vast amounts of data and rigorous analysis are necessary. Practical concerns — everything from picking efficient solar panels to tailoring new zoning laws that encourage smart development — have local answers. Politicians and policymakers must then enact needed changes. Central to this approach are good data and analysis, communicated effectively, that can adequately inform politicians and their constituents.
“Planners and politicians within cities are under pressure, but they don’t have the information to make informed decisions,” Hall says. “What we are talking about is the improvement of management of cities.”
The Fort Collins, CO, Experience
Sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains, Fort Collins, Colorado, may seem an unlikely host for such new ideas. Its first climate goal set in 1997 — a reduction by 30 percent below business-as-usual levels over 20 years — has fallen well short as the city and surroundings have experienced explosive growth.
As elsewhere, people are driving more cars and driving them further, as suburbs mushroomed beyond the old city limits. By 2007, the city had realized that it could not meet its target and that it needed to set more realistic goals to cut its GHG emissions. Today, Fort Collins is on the way to meeting the first of the new goals it set in 2008. Despite population growth of 7.5 percent since 2005, the city’s emissions have dropped slightly to 2.65 million tons from 2.71 million in 2008. Aggressive recycling (avoiding the landfill costs and need to replace materials with new products) and renewable energy and efficiency measures have been responsible, along with the slowed economy. But even small things added up: fluorescent lighting, smaller trashcans for residents, and coffee pot timers by reducing the amount of energy needed to power office buildings or haul trash to the landfill.
It’s been a win-win so far, says Lucinda Smith, the city’s senior environmental planner, who says Fort Collins is still operating on a “no-regrets approach.”
“For those things that have other benefits, we said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Smith says. She estimates that the city saved about $500,000 in 2009 alone, and many measures will pay off for decades.
But the easy options for Fort Collins are running out. Net metering, where homeowners can sell their own renewable energy back to the utilities, and other recycling efforts are in the works, although budget woes and a small but growing and vocal contingent hostile to climate change (some at city council meetings have equated climate efforts to communism) reduce the room to maneuver. A proposal for a pilot waste collection district was scrapped, for instance. And a requirement to conduct energy audits on new buildings was killed before it even reached a vote. All this is leading to uncertainty about how much further the city can go.
Goals set for 2012 — GHG emissions of no more than 2.5 million tons — are a reach. “I think it’s possible but it will still be difficult,” says Smith. “We’re past the point of voluntary actions.”
The future calls for changes going beyond simply how the city functions — its recycling programs, renewable energy supplies and energy efficiency measures — and demand changes in essential form as well. Urban planners, for instance, suggest real efficiency gains can be won only through smarter development that integrates future growth and existing infrastructure — roads, buildings, and development — into a more integrated plan reducing reliance on individual vehicles and sprawling development.
Most attempts to begin modifying these in U.S. cities, so far, have failed, and Fort Collins itself has experienced a tide of new development. Vehicle miles in the city keep rising. What it will take to meet its ultimate goal — 80 percent cuts by 2050 — remains unclear.
“There’s no planning on how that’s going to happen,” Smith says. “First things first.”
Cities’ Climate Honor Roll
ICLEI USA has compiled its list of cities taking action to reduce their GHG emissions. Covering everything from solar power to a shorter work week, the examples summarized from the 2009 report “Measuring Up,” show how urban areas nationwide are taking steps, large and small, to rethink the way cities are built, powered and designed:
Residential Green Building Code: Santa Fe, N.M.
The Santa Fe Residential Green Building Code adopted in 2009 sets a high energy efficiency standard for all new residential construction, with larger homes required to meet increasingly stringent energy use performance benchmarks (homes of more than 8,000 heated square feet are actually required to produce the same amount of energy that they expect to use).
Compressed Workweek: Asheville, N.C.
In 2008, Asheville cut energy demand and commuting costs for employees through a compressed work week. Instead of a traditional schedule, all staff (except senior management) work 10 hours per day, four days each week. The city cut energy use in public works buildings by 13 percent and estimated savings of 249 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year.
Solar Feed-In Tariff: Gainesville, FL
Gainesville Regional Utilities became the first municipally-owned and -operated utility in the U.S. to enact a solar feed-in tariff. Gainesville will pay 32 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for 20 years for power generated by solar electric systems installed in 2009 and 2010.
Promoting Cycling and Walking: Chicago, IL
The City of Chicago has drafted its pedestrian and bike plan, including recommendations for a 500-mile bikeway network, street safety improvements for cyclists, and 5,000 new bike racks.
Biogas to Energy: Columbia, MO
Columbia was Missouri’s first city to have a voter-approved renewable energy standard requiring renewable sources for the city’s energy supply. To help meet its goal, the Columbia Biogas Energy Plant came online in June 2008. By converting landfill gas to energy from its decomposing waste, the city can generate 2.1 megawatts of renewable power, enough to power 1,500 city homes.
Wastewater Treatment: Houston, TX
Since 2006, the City of Houston has tested 20 floating solar-powered reservoir circulators (SolarBees), designed to improve public drinking water quality and reduce water treatment costs by replacing energy-intensive treatment methods. Researchers point to notable improvements in water clarity and other water quality indicators such as pH, total organic carbon (TOC), and turbidity in waters entering the treatment plant.
Solar power: Santa Monica, CA
The City of Santa Monica’s Community Energy Independence Initiative establishes a net zero [emissions] energy goal for the city by 2020. It aims to produce as much electricity as consumed through energy efficiency measures and solar power. Solar Santa Monica provides free-of-charge energy efficiency and solar assessments for residential and commercial property owners and pre-qualified contractors.
Cities and Climate Change Organizations
United States Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Center
The U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement commits cities to reduce emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels by 2012. At least 1,044 mayors have joined to reduce carbon emissions in their cities in line with the Kyoto Protocol.
* The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement
Global Carbon Project‘s Urban and Regional Carbon Management Initiative
URCM was launched in 2005 as a place-based and policy-relevant scientific initiative aimed to support carbon management and sustainable urban development.
* City Action Plans
* Urban Regional Carbon Management: Publications
Created in 1985, the Metropolis Association is represented by more than 100 members from around the world and operates as an international forum for exploring issues and concerns common to all big cities and metropolitan regions. Metropolis also manages the Metropolitan Section of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).
Connected Urban Development
Connected Urban Development (CUD) demonstrates how to reduce carbon emissions by introducing fundamental improvements in the efficiency of urban infrastructure through information and communications technology (ICT). CUD was born from Cisco’s commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative to participate in helping reduce carbon emissions. The founding CUD cities are: San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Seoul. In 2008 four new cities joined the program — Birmingham, Hamburg, Lisbon, and Madrid — beginning a new phase for CUD and opening new avenues for collaboration in promoting smart urban environments globally.
Sustainable Cities Institute
The Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI), built by The Home Depot Foundation, is working with cities across the country as a resource to assist in planning and implementing local sustainable strategies through the use of its vetted best practices, communication tools and an innovative city program.
Research and Information
Global Cities Indicator
The Global City Indicators Program provides an established set of city indicators with a globally standardized methodology that allows for global comparability of city performance and knowledge sharing. This website serves all cities that become members to measure and report on a core set of indicators through this web-based relational database.
United Nations University: International Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change
HDP’s activities focus on three principal areas: developing and sustaining cutting-edge research; developing world-wide capacity to understand and deal with these challenges; and promoting interaction between scientists and policymakers on these topics. Cutting-edge science pushes the research agenda and urgency of action towards global environmental change forward, by continually identifying and addressing contemporary topics through its network of scientific projects.
Tyndall Center: Cities and Coasts
Our programme on building resilience and decreasing the vulnerability of people and places, with particular reference to cities and coasts, aims to bring greater integration to our work on coastal communities, cities and adaptation. Given the widespread consequences of climate change on ecosystems throughout society, adaptation represents a major challenge to future sustainability.
UN-Habitat: Climate Change and Cities
The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, is the United Nations agency for human settlements. It is mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.
* UN-HABITAT Climate Change Strategy 2010-2013
Michael Coren is a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and former managing editor of Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post.