Climate change: won or lost in cities or by cities?

climate change iceland2

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Oliver Harman, Cities Economist, International Growth Centre


Extinction Rebellion disrupted London and brought many transport routes to a standstill on Easter Weekend in 2019. A key demand for the direct action group was for the government to declare a climate emergency.

This demand has since been met – by the UK parliament, as well as the Argentinian senate, the French parliament and the Canadian House of Commons. In fact, a total of 983 jurisdictions stretching from Poland to the Philippines have now declared a climate emergency. However, a major question remains open in all cases: once declared, whose role it is to act?

For many policymakers, the answer is cities. It has been well touted that climate change will be won or lost in cities. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is one proponent of this argument.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) went one step further and said it’s down to cities to limit global warming. Such statements need careful examination as they can lead responsible actors to point the finger, rather than make changes themselves.

The role of cities in climate change

Cities are home to 55% of the global population and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say they consume approximately 70% of energy and 75% of global carbon emissions. This will likely increase as cities, particularly in developing countries, are still growing. By 2050, it is estimated that 66% of the global population will live in urban areas, meaning the use of resources in cities will rise.

Despite their resource demand, cities are also one of the most sustainable inventions humans have created. People living and working in proximity allows efficient public transport, shorter commuting distances and smaller homes with lower electricity use. When delivered correctly, this density leads to much lower carbon footprints than sprawling suburban counterparts.

Therefore, the role cities should play, and more importantly can play in climate change should be a key area of discussion in the upcoming Sustainable Development Impact summit.

Do cities have the power?

It is important to emphasise that even the world’s largest cities with the most devolved decision-making power do not have full autonomy over the key drivers of climate change. Transport policy is just one area in which many cities lack the ability to make and enact policy that would affect climate change.

For example, this sector currently accounts for almost a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions, and in urban areas 90% of urban transport energy is due to economic activity, transport costs, geography and urban form. Yet globally there is still considerably larger regional, national and supranational government influence driving policy and investments in these areas than there is for city governments.

In Nigeria for instance, design standards and building codes are prescribed at the national level. Similarly, Indian cities have limited say over green infrastructures and density regulation, two key policy levers mitigating climate change. Unable to act against sprawl, cities miss out on the environmental promises of proximity.

Furthermore, even when cities are empowered to enact policy in this area, local political economy issues are as big of a challenges as anywhere.

For example, New York city’s congestion charge has been twelve years in the making and was until very recently still running up against political barriers despite the clear benefits shown in London, Stockholm and Singapore. Therefore, if climate change is down to cities, then it is the role of national governments to enable them to act: they need the policy and investment power.

Which cities can make the biggest impact?

Almost half of urban dwellers live in small cities of less than 500,000 and, when looking at where greenhouse gas reduction can occur, over half of our 2030 reduction potential actually lies in these small and medium urban units. It isn’t, therefore, the large cities that may be able to affect the largest gains when it comes to climate change; it is instead the small human settlements.

Yet, many of these have even less power, capacity and financing to deliver actionable change than in larger cities. It is important not just to enable global cities with the power to change, but global towns, as well.

Image: New Climate Economy

Pointing researchers in the right direction

The policy focus may be towards the wrong actors of change, as much of the research is still being focused in the wrong direction. In particular, while only one-in-eight urban dwellers live in megacities, these areas receive much more academic attention – almost a quarter of all articles and literature since 1990.

The top 10 cities received almost as much focus as the bottom 5,000 in the literature. Yet, if the largest greenhouse gas reductions are available in small and medium cities, then policy research should be focused on options for decision makers in these areas. The spatial focus of research needs to be realigned.

Number of urban climate mitigation case studies, grouped according to city size.
Image: Carbon Brief

A regional mismatch is also apparent. African cities’ growth rate is 3.5%, compared to 1.9% globally. Of Africa’s projected 2050 urban population, two-thirds are yet to move in. Energy consumption in this region is increasing at a rate 30% higher than world’s average (2.9% compared to 2.2%). Combining this high city population growth, with increasing levels of energy consumption should give African cities and towns considerable ability to negate greenhouse gas emissions.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Gender equality within junior enterprises: the effect of President’s gender

Close to final agreement on the EU Banking Union

Antitrust: Commission sends Statement of Objections to O2 CZ, CETIN and T-Mobile CZ for their network sharing agreement

‘Answer the call of Afghans’ to reduce impact of conflict, UN urges all parties amid increase in civilian airstrike deaths

Greece bailout ends but with no substantial effect on citizens’ life

Brexit mission impossible: Theresa May was so desperate that had to appoint Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary

To entrepreneurship and beyond!

Amid global ‘learning crisis’, Parliaments can ensure adequate resources for education, says UN Assembly President

UN mourns death of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ‘a guiding force for good’

This is how climate science went mainstream

Young activists share four ways to create a more inclusive world

UN rights chief ‘appalled’ by US border detention conditions, says holding migrant children may violate international law

IMF asks Europe to decide on bank resolutions and the Greek Gordian knot

Threat from petty criminals who turn to terrorism, a growing concern, Security Council hears

The developing countries keep the world going

Joris in Indonesia

Dreaming of China

5G: How a ‘legion of robots’ could help save the rhino

Commission notifies the Republic of Panama over the need to step up action to fight against illegal fishing

Service and Sacrifice: Guinean peacekeepers make their mark in Mali

UN member states express their will to tackle global migration but specific actions are still missing

Secretary-General calls for global participation in UN75 dialogues for better future for all

MWC 2016 LIVE: Telenor CEO calls on operators to embrace Mobile Connect initiative

MEPs call for sanctions against Turkey over military operation in Syria

Germany not famous for easy way outs from political stalemates

Smart devices must come with trust already installed

How a new approach to meat can help end hunger

EU leaders agree on 2030 Climate and Energy Package: is “flexible” brave enough?

Northern Ireland: Parliament wants to secure post-Brexit regional funding

Globalization 4.0 must build a better world for working people

Syria: Civilians bear brunt of unilateral sanctions, exacerbating ‘unparalleled suffering, destruction,’ says UN expert

Global economy to see ‘steady’ growth of three per cent in 2019 despite risks, says UN

Schaeuble wants IMF out and bailouts ‘a la carte’ with Germany only to gain

At Arab League Summit, Guterres reaffirms strong link between UN and people of Arab world

Ukraine: Temperatures plunge amid rising humanitarian needs

Closing VAT loopholes for sales through online platforms

How trade tariffs could help combat climate change

These 5 countries plan to slash their CO2 emissions. But how will they do it?

Why economic growth depends on closing the interview gap

North Korea missile tests ‘deeply troubling’: senior UN official

Trump and Brexit: After the social whys the political whereto

Defence: European Commission paves the way for first joint industrial projects under EU budget

5G in Russia: a local and global view on the way forward, in association with The European Sting

EU adopts rebalancing measures in reaction to US steel and aluminium tariffs

Britain’s poet laureate has created a prize to highlight poetry about the climate crisis

Next time you fly, could you be boarding a train instead of a plane?

Fighting forest fires in Europe – how it works

Here’s why leaders need to care about mental health

LEAGUE OF YOUNG VOTERS LAUNCHES TOOL FOR YOUNG PEOPLE TO COMPARE POLITICAL PARTIES AHEAD OF EU ELECTIONS

The US starts an intense currency war to protect its global standing

Why feeding the planet doesn’t have to mean sacrificing our forests

For how long will terror and economic stagnation be clouding the European skies?

Learn from the margin, not the center: digital innovation with social impact as transformative force bridging digital divide

Youth policy in Europe not delivering for young people

This young scientist is tackling food insecurity for the world’s most vulnerable groups

Sudan: Health challenges in the Sustainable Development Goals era

Brazilian health: right or privilege?

New UN rights report paints bleak picture in eastern DR Congo

Here are 5 new green laws coming into force in 2020

70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this is why we need dignity more than ever

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s