Cities Can Be ‘Lighthouses’ for Curbing Emissions

City and local governments can serve as leaders in key sectors that’ll impact the global transition to a low carbon society. That’s according to a large study conducted by Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) that explores the roles of local level governments in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in the wake of the COP21 Paris agreement.

The agreement that came out of the UNFCCC’s 21st COP conference aimed to globally reduce GHG emissions in order to stymie the Earth’s warming. In 2015, the global average temperatures of the Earth were a full degree Celsius higher than the pre-industrial average temperatures. Nations have pledged to reduce GHG emissions in order to curb the Earth from warming another full degree Celsius, which would bring Earth’s average global temperatures to 2 degrees higher than pre-industrial levels. But that will require a large effort across national, subnational and local governments, not to mention shifts in the private sector and individual behaviors.

The so-called ‘emissions gap’ is substantial, said Pete Erickson, senior analyst at SEI and one of the lead researchers on the study. The emissions gap refers to the gap between the planet’s charted trajectory in terms of GHG emissions, and what’s required to reach prevent the Earth’s temperatures from rising another degree Celsius over the next century.

While success on this endeavor will depend on coordination and cooperation from all levels of government, and arguably human society at large, cities and local governments have unique roles to play in this massive mode shift, according to SEI’s data. “One of the first questions we’re asking is, what if all the urban areas around the world went as aggressively as they could towards low-carbon development and energy efficiency and other kinds of actions that cities can do? How much of the gap would that make up?” said Erickson.

According to Erickson’s research, cities and local governments can help make up roughly 15% of the emissions gap. This potential, which Erickson refers to as the urban abatement potential, can be realized through a number of locally-lead mechanisms and policy shifts. “The measures that we looked at were related to things that urban areas and city governments do as part of their normal business, where they have some unique policy influence,” Erickson said. That includes building permits and codes, passenger transport, freight travel, and waste management.

Cities Can Avoid Locking-In Carbon

Cities and local governments will have the most impact on reducing GHG emissions by avoiding locking in carbon-intense systems in those key sectors, particularly buildings and transport.

“If cities don’t go on the low-carbon pathway now, they could be locking in future emissions that are harder to undo later, making it more costly for governments to realize their climate goals,” Erickson said. He estimated that cities are locking in about a third of global GHG emissions at present.“The infrastructure they build, the transport systems, the buildings — those decisions are very hard to undo later,” he said.

Cities can tackle GHG emissions from multiple angles:

  • Implementing energy efficient building codes and permits, and incentivizing so-called “green” retrofits to older buildings. According to SEI’s research, building codes account for up to 40% of a city’s GHG abatement potential, assuming cities adopt ambitious, passive energy building codes. This is especially true in colder climate regions such as North America and Europe, where more energy is used to heat less efficient buildings during the winter months, especially in residential buildings.  “It’s important in the near term to develop more efficient building standards so that you don’t lock in high emissions pathways in the long term,” Erickson said.
  • Incentivizing low-carbon transportation alternatives through mechanisms such as increased investments in energy efficient public transport, or increased registration fees for larger, GHG-emitting vehicles. This abatement potential is concentrated in high population density areas such as China and India, and in North America and Western Europe where affluent lifestyles afford high levels of personal transport.
  • Intelligent urban planning that emphasizes compact communities where residents can walk or bike to more places. “People are closer to the services they need, that reduces off the top quite a bit of demand,” Erickson said.
  • Energy efficiency advocacy through means such as building electric vehicle charging stations, incentivizing rooftop solar through permitting, or engaging in information outreach about things such as public transportation options or energy efficient appliance alternatives for the home.

“Something like urban planning and urban form, that’s something that cities are doing already, and they can do it in a much better way,” Erickson said. “That’s where cities can be policy leaders and architects.”

Vertical Integration Key to Low Carbon Future

Overall, the urban abatement potential is spread across 5,000 urban areas around the globe. “Cities can contribute to closing that emissions gap, but that potential is very diffuse,” Erickson said. “Each urban area is a constellation of individual cities and towns. That is a challenge that needs to be grappled with.”

That means coordination between higher and lower levels of government is imperative to enable cities and local governments to realize that potential. “There’s a need for vertical integration for engagement and coordinated action for national governments to enable them and help set the stage for cities to realize this abatement potential more quickly and fully and cost effectively than they would be able to on their own,” Erickson said.

“Under an aggressive global program of action, cities could make up about 15% of the emissions gap,” he said. “Cities have a big role to play.”

Listen to  Webinar on SEI’s research here:

Feature image: “Portland Bill Lighthouse” (CC BY 2.0) by  Philip Gøh 



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