The COP21 climate negotiations in Paris are remarkable for prompting 160 national pledges to reduce carbon emissions, representing nearly 90 percent of total emissions. The United States’ pledge aims at a 26-28 percent national reduction by 2025. Whether this is a transcendent moment in planetary history will depend, however, on how well we are able to transform these pledges into action. There are strong headwinds here. At the global level, even if all the participating countries meet their pledges, we will still sail past the two degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial global average temperature) that serves as the threshold for preventing especially severe effects of climate change. The realpolitik of climate policy in America, meanwhile, will prevent the federal government from adopting any legally binding commitments from Paris meant to survive political regimes. As a result, an effective response to climate change must be much more aggressive than any agreement reached at COP21, and it will need to come from a more diverse set of actors than national governments.
In the years following COP21, American cities have the opportunity, and perhaps responsibility, to greatly exceed the national emissions reductions targets. It’s an effort they must contribute if we are to have any hope of halting climate change.
Globally, cities have a substantial impact on global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. They contain 54 percent of the world’s population, but release more than 70 percent of the world’s total GHG emissions. The United States is heavily urbanized (81 percent of its population lives in cities) and has among the highest per capita GHG emissions level in the world. So, while US cities represent a high concentration of the nation’s emissions, they also present some of the most significant opportunities for decarbonization.
This begins with setting long-term civic emissions reduction targets that are drastically steeper than the national ones. Cities do not need congressional approval to do this. Ideally, these targets should be aiming at zero or net-zero emissions. Because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for such a long time, actually stabilizing the planet’s temperature requires that emissions stop entirely, or are offset somehow. A more moderate target is the one set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
Decarbonizing American Cities
Are cities capable of aggressive decarbonization? In terms of making pledges the answer is clearly, yes. A recent report by ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability and The World Wildlife Fund identifies 132 American cities with emissions reduction plans. Among them, 62 have targets that are equal to or greater than the US COP21 target, and more than half of these plan to meet or exceed the IPCCs recommendation of 80 percent by 2050. Four of them, including Seattle, are aiming for zero or net-zero emissions by that time. Several cities made pledges similar to the national ones in advance of COP21, and international cities organizations, including ICLEI and the C40, were present to commit to further urban climate action.These pledges are encouraging, but why think that cities are especially capable of acting on them? One reason is that American cities exert a significant amount of direct control over the policies, fundraising, and development choices that influence their emissions. Waste management, building energy use, new construction standards, and public transportation are all levers for emissions reductions. New buildings and the equipment inside them account for the majority of future emissions to which cities are committed. Cities should insist that these new construction projects and their contents are highly efficient as, for example, Atlanta has done in requiring all city-funded projects above a certain size to be LEED silver certified.
Cities ultimately reduce their total carbon footprints by compounding many small achievable improvements using technology that already exists. Transportation networks can be actively designed around the purpose of removing the need for cars. City governments can demand green infrastructure and carbon offsets as conditions of new development. They can expand the use of solar power now that the price of the technology has plummeted. Urban wastewater systems can be particularly progressive, for example by using algae to recover nutrients and the use of anaerobic digestion to produce biogas fuel. These technologies are all available now and in practice to varying degrees in some places.
Financial and Political ChallengesThis investment is expensive, but the cost of inaction is much higher. Investment in energy-efficient infrastructure now saves a lot of money compared to long-term inefficiency and retrofitting required by the higher emissions standards of the future. It is a false choice to suggest that cities must choose between reducing emissions and economic productivity. Real GDP in the US has continued to rise despite a decline in per capita emissions. Moreover, since carbon-mitigation projects frequently overlap with basic infrastructure improvements that American cities have long needed, they offer an opportunity to demand focused state and federal funding, and to rally local financial support.
It is crucial for cities to build a strong base of local motivation. Doing this can go some way toward sidestepping national political disagreement about how much to worry about climate change. Many of the practical changes necessary—like energy efficiency, reducing pollution, protecting water sources, and building more efficient food networks—are broadly popular. Decarbonization efforts should therefore be pitched as a matter of civic pride to help build a local ethos of support.
The scale of the climate challenge is enormous and requires broad investments at all levels. Cities cannot solve this problem by themselves. But they can make major contributions to meeting (and hopefully exceeding) the national decarbonization targets by building spaces in which the further necessary changes in individual consumption patterns can take place. American global cities, in particular, have an important leadership role to play here. Aside from their size, they can serve as the organizational leaders for coordinating the broader American efforts at civic action. They are the places where much of the innovation mentioned above is happening. Expanding public-to-public connections between these cities and smaller regional ones can extend this impact significantly. If global cities are hoping to develop a foreign policy presence, let it include being a leading force for climate action that exceeds their nations’ commitments following COP21.