Do cities need COP21 to cut down on carbon?

Hong Kong skyline

Dr Karl M. Smith, Manager of the Blue Green Dream Project, proposes that empowered cities can hold their own and contribute to global efforts to limit dangerous climate change.

The gathering storm

On 22nd October, 2015, Hurricane Patricia barrelled across the Pacific Ocean. In its line of sight: Mexico. Patricia threatened to become the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the Western hemisphere.

As it neared the coast, Roberto Dondisch, Mexico’s chief negotiator at COP21, the Paris 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, was in Bonn for the last round of preparatory talks. Stirred by the looming catastrophe, he gave an impassioned plea to the 195 countries of COP21 to take action on climate change mitigation. “Put aside your differences,” he asked them, “So together we can start working.”

The hurricane was less severe than predicted. And crucially, it didn’t strike a heavily populated area. However, based on current climate change projections, we can expect more frequent, extreme weather events. And with urban populations soaring, their impacts will be increasingly felt in towns and cities across the world.

COP21 will focus on national policy, but does local government have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions? Indeed, how responsible are cities for our changing climate?

Cities and Climate Change: Are we right to be worried?

As highlighted in an earlier blog, 54% of the world’s population live in cities. By 2050, the UN expects this figure to approach 70%. For cities, climate change spells a perfect storm of droughts, heat waves, floods and hurricanes. The change in risk and magnitude of each weather event is region dependent. Indeed in some areas, extreme weather events, such as prolonged sub-zero temperatures, are liable to become less frequent or less severe. There is little doubt though that climate change imperils cities.

Cutting carbon: Why cities count

China is the largest single contributor to global carbon emissions – 28%, against the EU’s 10 %. A 2009 publication calculated that China’s urban areas consumed 75% of the energy produced across the country. Moreover, the 35 key cities used in the paper’s case study, which collectively housed only 18% of China’s population, were responsible, in 2006, for 40 % of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. Our ability to steer cities towards a low carbon future will therefore be a decisive factor in the success of global climate change mitigation efforts.

COP21: Can cities cope without it?

Smog in Paris
Smog in Paris

Much hope is placed on COP21 committing countries to a carbon emission trajectory that will restrict the average global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. If this bid fails, is all hope lost?

No. Cities are becoming increasingly autonomous. Mayors of major cities such as New York, Berlin, Medellin, as articulated in a recent Observer article, are able to push through measures at a rate that far outstrips lumbering national legislatures.

In March 2015, Paris briefly became the most polluted city in the world. However, on September 27th 2015, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo barred cars from 30% of Paris. A single day may not stand for much, but such actions demonstrate cities’ potential to steal a lead on national governments. Hidalgo has already pledged to ban all diesel vehicles from Paris by 2020.

Is London leading?

So is London following Paris’s precedent? It already boasts the UK’s lowest figure for annual domestic carbon dioxide emissions per person (2.26 tonnes). Moreover, in March 2015, the Greater London Authority’s revised London Plan pledged to make London a world leader in tackling climate change. By 2025 they aim to have achieved a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (relative to 1990 levels).

Accelerating urban action

COP21 hinges around binding commitments. However, this makes cutting carbon emissions seem like a burden. Coercion can breed resentment and resistance.

An alternative approach? Accentuate the positive.

A 2015 study from Kings College London concluded that London’s poor air quality was resulting in around 9,500 premature deaths a year, at an economic cost of up to £3.7 billion. Cutting urban carbon emissions would mean reductions in key pollutants such as NO2 and PM2.5, thereby addressing one of London’s main health hazards.

Bike, bus and taxi in LondonHighlighting what can be gained from carbon cuts (i.e., the co-benefits), rather than what stands to be lost, is clearly vital. Moreover, the case for the” co-benefits” argument is building. A 2015 article published in Nature Climate Change concluded that ”communicating co-benefits could motivate action on climate change where traditional approaches have stalled”.

There is also growing awareness of the health co-benefits of lowering carbon emissions. These include not only cleaner air, but as described in a recent Grantham blog, healthier diets (less meat consumption) and increased exercise (more journeys on foot/by bike).

Self-interest is a powerful driver. What better way is there of effecting change then appealing to cities’ ambitions? Most cities seek to surpass each other on key social, economic and environmental indicators. Doing so enables them to compete for the best educated and most dynamic workforce, as well as proving that they are open to innovation.

Beyond COP21

Achieving the hallowed 2°C commitment at COP21 is important. But cities can go far beyond COP21’s aspirations through a combination of local autonomy, a co-benefits based rationale for action and an ambition to deliver healthier, greener cities.

Projects such as the Blue Green Dream are already demonstrating urban pathways for a low-carbon future with multiple co-benefits. A bright future for our towns and cities need not come at a cost.

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