Exploring the Power of Cities to Move the Sustainability Agenda Forward

By Rosaly Byrd and Laurèn DeMates –

Examining environmental issues on both the global and local level is so valuable that the Sustainability Co-Op dedicated a theme “From Global to Local”. This post is about how the local level, cities specifically, are tackling sustainability while national governments are failing to make progress internationally.  Climate change in particular has been observed through a global lens over the last 20 years. Although this is very important since climate change is a worldwide phenomenon, over these last two decades we have not made any progress in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and slowing climate change. And now many individuals and organizations are starting to agree that, along with our global initiatives, there must be action on a more local level.

 Why at the local level?

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is a world group designed to help cities collaborate with one another in a form of knowledge sharing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are common to cities. It was established in 2005 with the idea that GHG reduction should happen at the city level considering that cities use more than 2/3 of the world’s energy and account for 70% of total global CO2 emissions. And it makes sense for cities to attack the issue of climate change, as they often have smaller and more homogenous populations than whole nations. Cities also comprise of smaller geographical space making specific impacts more easily observable (and easier to respond ). Also, as the book Climatopolis by Matthew Kahn points out, cities are always competing against one another for citizens and for business; in order to keep current citizens and attract more, cities must have a longer-term approach.

Examining city advantages from a management point of view also provides lessons for why cities are better equipped to implement climate change and sustainability policies. As local governments usually have tight connections with the businesses in the region, they will have more sway and access to the resources that can help with mitigation and adaptation, for example R&D and financing. Also, as we recently saw with the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy pressing President Obama to follow through with his Climate Action Plan, companies need stable, resilient areas in which to build their businesses. The private sector will work with cities to manage and mitigate climate risks, especially if it directly affects their investments and assets. Similarly, something we will see more of in the near future as more companies realize the importance of including environmental considerations into management practices is that businesses will begin to migrate to climate ‘friendly’ and sustainable cities to stay on top of regulatory situations, not to mention manage climate risk. Local governments will take on necessary measures in order to attract or keep businesses and investments in their city.

On another note, forward-thinking cities and states that act and implement sustainability measures can act as guinea pigs for other cities/states and even for the federal government. Through horizontal and vertical policy integration, one progressive city that demonstrates that addressing environmental issues is worthwhile can get other cities on board and even the federal government. In this way, cities can act as leaders and models to propel action on both the national and global scale.

Knowledge sharing organizations are getting cities to act

A couples weeks ago I attended a workshop for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in Rio de Janeiro, where a report on the Rio Sustainability Initiative was being drafted.  As a part of the SDSN’s the Sustainable Cities project, Rio, along with other cities such as New York City, are looking at investments, infrastructure, and planning in order to provide sustainable city living for the future.

At this same workshop, leading climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig informed me of the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN), a group that studies urban climate change mitigation, works with stakeholders and systemizes city collaboration. The UCCRN also coordinates the Assessment Report on Climate Change in Cities (ARC3), an IPCC type assessment report produced by and for cities. There is also a campaign to incorporate an Urban Sustainable Development Goal in the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals. I’m excited with what the UCCRN is doing and I would like to spread the word.

The list of projects where cities help other cities to address sustainability will only grow in the future. But something that I feel I must point out, especially having a Masters in International Affairs, is that it is also very important for nations as a whole to still be involved. International agreements must be made. The global free-rider problem must be acknowledged. Standardization and harmonization of metrics to monitor actions need to occur on the world level. I am confident that international goals will be made, once cities in individual countries make the effort to prioritize sustainability, demonstrating to their nation that it is possible and that the constituents want it. Now it is just a question of whether or not it will be too late.

Putting Theory into Practice

All over the world cities are implementing initiatives, changing ordinances, and adapting new technologies to make the places they live more sustainable. Climate change may have just given cities the extra motivation they need to do so. American City & County calls these efforts to safeguard against climate change, resource scarcity, and damage to ecosystems ‘future proofing.’ They also outline 4 types of at-risk cities and the key solutions that these cities should focus on:

  • Energy intensive cities with large carbon footprints: Sustainable transportation policy and promoting action for reduced carbon emissions (Bakersfield, CA)

  • Cities with major climate hazards: Hard infrastructure including reducing flood risks, strategic land management, public health measures, and disaster preparedness plans (New Orleans, LA)

  • Cities with risks to regional support systems such as water, food systems, and risks to natural habitats:  Widest range of solutions, but urban agriculture and wastewater recycling are extra relevant (Houston, TX)

  • Cities facing multiple risks: Harmonizing policies is most important. Balance between short and long-term solutions and utilizing public-private partnerships to shift behavior (Los Angeles, CA)

These options are not mutually exclusive, but this list is helpful because it recognizes that making a city more sustainable is not a one-size-fits all approach, but should be guided by issues material to that city. There are many different ways that cities can be more sustainable and encourage innovation in the process. Here are the winners of the C40 and Siemens City Climate Leadership Awards that recognizes cities performance in 10 categories to showcase best practice and help illustrate what can be done to other cities around the globe (Link above offers great case studies to learn more about these programs):

  • Waste Management: San Francisco for their Zero Waste Program to be achieved by 2020 through legal, administrative and social changes

  • Finance and Economic Development: Tokyo, Japan for the City Cap-and-Trade Program, the first of its kind and requires reductions from commercial, government, and industrial buildings

  • Adaptation and Resilience: NYC for the program A Stronger, More Resilient New York to protect the city and coastlines from future extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy

  • Sustainable Communities: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Morar Carioca project, a comprehensive urban revitalization strategy focusing on the informal ‘favelas’ of the city

  • Energy Efficient Built Environment: Melbourne, Australia for Sustainable Buildings Program that includes incentives and partnerships to reduce the footprint of commercial buildings

  • Urban Transportation: Bogota, Colombia for improvements through the TransMileno, a rapid bus transit system, and electric taxis or E-taxis

  • Carbon Measurement and Planning: Copenhagen, Denmark for their CPH Climate Plan 2025 to be world’s first carbon neutral city

  • Intelligent City Infrastructure: Singapore for their Intelligent Transport System that has used innovative technologies to become one of the least congested major cities in the world

  • Air Quality: Mexico City for the ProAire program that has improved air quality dramatically since the high levels of air pollution that plagued the city in the 1990s

  • Green Energy: Munich, Germany for plan to use energy from 100% Green Power by 2025

This list gives a glimpse into cities pushing the envelope and how they are using their local knowledge of the area and key actors to prioritize material issues. It may be easier to get changes through the political system at the city level compared to state, national, and international, which makes their potential role even stronger. In the U.S. there are many cities besides the ones mentioned above that are doing their part. Here are a few other examples of recent actions that U.S. cities have taken to be more sustainable: recycling and compost programs, banning or charging for plastic bags, transitioning to alternative fuel buses, a green building code in Dallas which rivals the uber sustainable Texas city of Austin, zoning rules that require large new commercial buildings to address their climate risk in Boston, and installing LED street lights in Boston and in NYC (just announced last week). Cities are a key player in addressing climate change which is becoming more apparent with breakthroughs such as these in the adaptation and mitigation to climate change. What is your city doing?

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3 thoughts

  1. In the spirit of talking about sustainable cities, and having NYC as the cover picture for this post, I just want to say congratulations to NYC and it’s first democratically elected mayor in 20 years, Mr. Bill de Blasio. The new mayor has some tough shoes to fill as Mayor Michael Boomberg proved to be a true leader and champion for climate change and sustainability issues, but with goals that take energy retrofitting even further, Bill de Blasio could make sustainability a precedent for the future mayors of the Big Apple.

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