From Gritty Cities to Green Environments


Photo credit: Zoe Thomas

By Zoe Thomas

Between the 6th and 18th of December 2009, national leaders and representatives, met in Copenhagen to argue and shout over promises and treaties they would or would not make on climate change. On 15th of December 2009 also in Copenhagen, leaders from cities in those same nations met to discuss the practical measure they were making to reduce their CO2 emissions.

On brightly coloured cushioned chairs, representatives from eighty cities including, fifty-five mayors discussed ways in which they could tackle climate change. Unlike the horse-trading and bickering going on just down the road, the Climate Summit for Mayors allowed ten cities (Barcelona, Copenhagen, Jakarta, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York City, Sao Paulo and Toronto) to showcase the efforts they had been making to combat climate issues.

This meeting was not the first of its kind. In 2005 representatives from eighteen cities met in London to discuss how they could tackle climate change. The Large City Climate Leadership Group expanded to become the C40, which held its fourth summit in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the beginning of June this year.

By many accounts this most recent summit was a great success. It saw the signing of an agreement between the C40 and the World Bank to assist mega-cities in expanding programs of mitigation, lessening their emissions and adaptation, changing to greener technologies. Some see this as a sign of just how powerful the organization and its member cities have become without national governments.

The cities of the world house nearly half the world’s population and produce over seventy percent of the world greenhouse gas emissions according to UN reports. It may not seem surprising then, that it is here that experts predict the battle against climate change could be won or lost.

“City authorities have a great deal of control over practical things,” said David Dodman of the International Institute for Environmental and Development (IIED). He explained that this control enabled them to implement meaningful and effective climate polices.

Across the world, cities are taking up issues of climate change on their own. In New York, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Seoul buildings are being retrofitted to be more energy efficient. In Johannesburg the first fuel-efficient bus rapid transit system in Africa, designed to make the city’s transport systems more user, cost and environmentally friendly, is being planned. Melbourne, Australia has made energy audits mandatory, and cold water from Lake Ontario is being used to cool Toronto buildings.

“Mayors have the power to take action locally — outside of the international and national dialogue — in a way that will have a positive, and more immediate impact globally,” explained Mike Marinello, an advisor to the C40, Large City Climate Summit.

With large populations closely packed, cities are at risk of being devastated by climate change related catastrophes. But, it is their control over these populations that make their policies so effective. Irrespective of the national policies, cities are taking measures against climate change both to protect against disasters and cut back on their own emissions.

White Light Green Energy

In 2009 with the help of the Clinton Climate Initiative the City of Los Angeles undertook the biggest switch over to light emitting diode (LED) street lighting of any major city. L.A. is in the process of changing 140,000 of the 209,000 streetlights it operates to LED. The project will take five years, but is expected to cut the city’s emissions by 40,500 tons.

LED lighting is seen not only as a greener option, but a cheaper and even safer one. Many LED street fixtures have warranties for up to 50,000 hours, which means cities would only need to change them about every eleven years. LED lights also give off a whiter glow and contain no mercury which give supports cause claim they are both environmentally safe and keep cities safer by providing better lit streets. L.A. estimates that it will save approximately $10 million per year after all the LED streetlights are installed.

On the other side of the world, The Climate Group, an international not-for-profit organization is working with cities in India to undertake similar, all be it smaller, projects. Aditi Dass, a program manager for cities and regions in India explained that several programs were underway in the country. Three hundred streetlight in both Calcutta and Thane, a northern suburb of Mumbai, will be replaced with LED fixtures.

“Electricity is a problem in India,” Dass explained. Many rural locations have no connection to electricity at all. It is in cities that the bulk of India’s electricity is used and where greener technology must be taken up.

To convince cities to switch to LED lighting took a bit of persuasion, Dass explained. The lights themselves are very expensive, but with the help of The Climate Group to secure grants, organize bids and monitor the LED lights, as well as the promise of future saving, cities were convinced.

“We coordinate the entire project,” said Dass, “Other technologies like CFL and wind are already available and cost effective. We as a group focus on new technologies that need a push.”

The push in India seems to be effective with Calcutta already considering the possibility to change 4,000 more of the 180,000 streetlight in the city to LED. “Streetlights are something cities cannot do without,” said Dass.

Not all LED projects go so smoothly. In June 2010, Philadelphia Councilman John Kenney proposed a resolution to change streetlights there to LED and was met with stark resistance. The city’s Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson claimed the project would simply be too costly up front.

Bryan Collins, an outreach coordinator for PennFuture, a Pennsylvania based environmental group, explained that getting governments to take up climate change programs often meant proposing cost neutral or cost saving initiatives. In the Next Great City program that PennFuture help lay out for the city, all proposals were cost neutral if not cost reducing.

“Even if governments want to see certain projects implemented they don’t have money lying around,” said Collins.  “First we need evidence that a project does save money and this is where you get the project rolling.”

Underdeveloped but over effected

Lack of funding to prepare for climate change is a particular issue in less developed counties of the world. By 2030, fifty-seven percent of the population in these countries is predicted by the UN to be living in urban areas. These countries are also those most at risk from climate change related disasters such as rising sea levels, flooding, and more frequent and violent storms.

“No matter who has created greenhouse gases their effects are going to be disproportionately felt in developing countries,” said Dodman.

These disproportionate effects have the potential to be devastating to the already large and growing urban populations in developing countries. With international aid funding often going to national governments cities are left apply for grants, seek out NGO’s with a sub-national focus or go it alone. Dodman explained, that the threat was compounded by the fact that many of these cities also lacked proper infrastructure such as roads or drainage.

“But, it also leads to more effective way to address problems” he said. “Cities have to be entrepreneurs.” But, building with eye towards climate change is also in the best interest of cities, both in terms of disaster preparedness and long-term growth.

It is here where organizations like the C40, IIED, the Clinton Climate Initiative or The Climate Group, which focus specifically on cities or sub-national regions, make a difference. Their assistance in helping create targeted responses can show national governments how climate polices can be successfully implemented.

The participation in the C40 of cities such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Hanoi, Vietnam and Karachi, Pakistan, among others, all of which are in low-income countries, at high risk of climate change related problems, is a sure sign that these cities are not waiting for a crisis to strike. Their participations signals that regardless of national perception or international standing these cities are playing a role in the global fight to prevent climate change.

Practical Advantage

It is not just cities in the developing world that are taking up climate change as their own issue. Several cities in the US, a country known for its outspoken climate sceptics, have rolled out environmental plans aimed at making them greener and more efficient. In the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral race, PennFuture and other affiliated organizations made green policy an issue by challenging candidates to focus on quality of life issues such as energy prices and transportation. The campaign led to many of the policies rolled out in Mayor Nutter’s subsequent Green Works plan for the city.

“Its easier to push programs through at a city level,” explained Collins.

This is the heart of the issue. Regardless of national agendas or scientific fact and irrespective of what national politicians may want, cities simply are in a more advantageous position to make meaningful changes.

“Cities are on the frontline of global climate change,” explained Marinello. “The infrastructure, the citizens and Mayors deal with the impact on a daily basis, so as a result cities are determined to act today, and not wait for international or national solutions to arise.”

The success of the C40 and other such groups is not in their international power. Being the leaders of world’s major cities hasn’t stopped global warming or changed the policies of national governments. It is their ability to work locally and implement practical policies, as well as their willingness to share this knowledge with one another that has allowed so many of the worlds greatest cities and worst polluters to curb their emissions. The large finical and regional variation between cities means that suitable advise is available. Cities like New York and London, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, or Jakarta and Hanoi are likely to have guidance for each other.

“Cities have traditionally been ignored in policy making for climate change,” Dodman said, adding, “If climate change is treated as an environmental issues than it doesn’t really take into account urban issues.”

The C40 has now adopted standards for participation and new ways to measure and monitor greenhouse gas emissions. These policies may not be rolled into national agendas but their practical application may have national and global impact.

Indeed it is not just the ability of cities to make changes but also the more extreme threat that climate change puts them in that has made them more ready to act. With many major cities built along coastline the threat of rising sea levels becomes even more ominous and with growing populations could lead to greater devastation.

In his opening address at the C40 Summit New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg told his fellow city leaders, “because of our shared experience leading the world’s great cities and because now more then ever we grasp the urgency of the challenges we face, no one can do more to produce good outcomes for the world than we, the mayors’ of the great cities can.”

These may just be words, but if practical measures continue to be taken in the world’s largest cities, regardless of national policy or international agreement, over half of the world’s populations, could in fact find themselves looking at a greener future.

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