Monday, December 19, 2016

Cities Can Pick Up Nations’ Slack on Combating Climate Change

Mayors Summit 2016 (Credit: Reuters/Henry Romero) Click to Enlarge.
... [W]hen Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, says “the battle for climate change will be won or lost in the cities of the world” to a packed conference room at the C40 [Mayors] Summit, he’s only partly playing to his audience.  His declaration came after C40’s executive director Mark Watts1 had presented the findings from Deadline2020, a 100-plus-page C40 study detailing how the organization’s 90 affiliated cities can, and are, taking rapid, impactful actions to keep the Earth from warming to the point of catastrophe.  As Watts explained—his speech punctuated by a jarring tick-tock noise playing over the PA—these cities need to peak their emissions by 2020.

Deadline2020 is based on goals set out in the Paris Agreement, a UN treaty signed by (as of this writing) 117 countries to keep the average global temperature from rising to 2˚C above pre-Industrial levels.  Actually, the Paris Agreement calls for that temperature rise—which is already happening, by the way—to stay as close to 1.5˚C as possible.  Deadline2020 aims for that more ambitious goal.

In that frame, the next four years are critical.  Climate scientists talk about “locked-in warming.” This is warming that is already destined to happen because of present emissions levels.  If the C40 cities want to meet that 1.5˚C goal, its members need to collectively cut the average emissions of city-dwelling folks from 5.1 tons to 2.1 per person by 2020.  (According to C40’s own assessment of the atmosphere’s current inventory of greenhouse gases, the world is already locked-in for 1.2˚C of warming.  Other, more pessimistic, studies say the 1.5˚C goal is already blown.)

One big battle
Cities can’t save the Paris Agreement, or the world, on their own.  But they can do a lot.  And they can do it a lot faster, and a lot more reliably, than nations.  Look at Mexico City.  In 1992 it was the most polluted city on the planet.  For the week of the C40 conference, the air quality was in the moderate zone — not great, but not the worst.  This is thanks to laws limiting when drivers can drive, regulations forcing its taxi and bus fleets to go green, and an emphasis on making streets and neighborhoods more bike and pedestrian-friendly.  All of those things, of course, also lower the city’s carbon footprint.

And cities’ environmental decisions don’t happen in a void.  Urban areas are big economic players — Mexico City contributes around 16 percent of Mexico’s annual GDP — and their investments send ripples through global markets.  Another example:  China’s Shenzhen has begun electrifying its fleet of taxis and buses, and plans to convert private vehicles as well. That’s 15 million people whose daily travels won’t create a demand for oil.

C40 Cities came about after then-mayor of London Ken Livingstone convened mayors from 17 other cities that were already taking action on climate action.  He envisioned a network in which metropoli could optimize their individual efforts by sharing ideas, data, and mistakes. Further, he and the other mayors thought the group should include 20 cities from the northern hemisphere, and 20 from the south — the 40 in C40.  It’s since grown.  Members include the obvious (Portland), the influential (New York), the sprawling (Johannesburg), and the growing (Addis Ababa).  Between 2005 and 2016 they have taken more than 11,000 total actions to emit less, mitigate the stuff that is emitted, and fortify themselves against threats like higher tides, worse floods, and longer droughts.
Why cities?
[C]ities have to spend huge amounts of money anyway, and often the green solutions are better for the city’s bottom line — transportation projects don’t just move people, they move people’s money.  Greener cities also attract demographics that raise a city’s profile: millennials, creative class, young professionals; pick your buzzword, they like clean cities, and cities like them.

So, that sort of answers the why, but not the how.  How do cities not get bogged down in the political divisiveness that has historically stalled climate action?  “In higher levels of government, oftentimes the debates are philosophical,” Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C., told me during a sit-down chat between plenaries.  Nations are big enough, and their economies diverse enough, that their elected officials can exhaust years bickering over the science.  “A mayor doesn’t have that as an option,” says Bowser.  “You have to run the transportation systems, pick up trash, make sure kids get to school, keep the police policing, and firefighters fighting fires.”  Climate change is already pressuring many of those civil services.  Cities demand action.

And not only have these cities spent over a decade trading ideas (and mistakes), they have already gotten their member cities to agree on a standardized emissions accounting system: the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC). Nearly every C40 city reports its emissions using this standard.  “The collection of carbon data is fundamental to everything we do at C40,” says Thomas Bailey, an energy analyst with the organization.

There’s another facet to the “why” of cities taking the lead on climate action.  But first, quick question: Can you name, without calling on Google, the strongest hurricane ever recorded? (Hint: It happened last year.)  No?  Probably because it (Hurricane Patricia, with high winds of 215 miles per hour) made landfall in a sparsely populated part of Mexico, killing nobody.

Now imagine if that coastline had been citified.  In the U.S., the odds of such a catastrophe are increasing, as coastal urban areas grow faster than anywhere else.  Storms and sea-level rise aren’t the only threats.  Landlocked Mexico City gets flooded annually by severe thunderstorms.  And cities absorb populations when drought, famine, and other disasters make rural places uninhabitable.  A city that doesn’t take climate change seriously is courting disaster.

Read more at Cities Can Pick Up Nations’ Slack on Combating Climate Change

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