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In Depth

Policy
| 07/09/15

Are cities, not nations, the true climate leaders?

TCE

The climate pledges submitted to the United Nations (UN) so far may not be enough to keep average global temperatures within 2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels, but independent action by cities and regions may be enough to pick up the slack from nation-states, according to a report out this week from famed environmental economist Nicholas Stern.

The study, put out by the New Climate Economy, a group of 28 chief executives, economists and politicians led by Stern and former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, recommends a series of actions to keep within the two-degree guardrail that could achieve 96 percent of the required emissions reductions as early as 2030. And the cherry on top is that this can be achieved while maintaining economic growth.

Chief amongst the recommendations is that cities significantly build out public transportation, boost energy efficiency in public buildings and private homes, and improve waste management. Such measures are not often included in national emissions pledges, yet the savings available—both in carbon and cash—are immense. The authors say that all cities, not just nations, must commit to low-carbon urban development strategies by 2020. If such investments by municipalities around the world are made, this could reduce annual GHG emissions by 3.7 gigatonnes by 2030 while actually saving them roughly $17 trillion by 2050.

Such measures would cost US$977 billion per year on average globally from 2015–2050, but would reduce annual energy costs by US$1.58 trillion in 2030 and US$5.85 trillion in 2050. As a result, they would pay for themselves within 16 years.

The world’s population is now majority urban rather than rural, for the first time in our species’ history. By 2030, some 60 percent of us will live in cities. These metropoles are responsible for some 85 percent of global GDP and about three quarters of energy-related greenhouse gases. But “compact, connected, and efficient cities” can be dense islands of sustainability as well, say the authors.

Examples of ambitious urban and regional climate pledges include Vancouver’s promise of achieving 100 percent renewable energy use within the next few decades, Copenhagen’s commitment to becoming the first carbon neutral city by 2025, and California’s goal of bringing emissions below 1990 levels within five years.

Last week, the heads of municipal and regional governments met in Lyon, France, to push for a greater role in climate discussions, which currently have no formal role in international negotiations and limited access to the climate finance that is offered to states. Delegates won a commitment from French President François Hollande that “a portion of these funds must be accessible directly by local and regional governments.” The intervention by the French leader is significant, as he is host to the UN crunch talks in Paris at the end of the year where a new climate treaty is expected to be agreed.

Meanwhile the Ontario government is playing host this week to the Climate Summit of the Americas. As it opened on Wednesday, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne and her Quebec counterpart Philippe Couillard called on subnational states to pick up the slack from nation-states – and to fill “the void” left by Ottawa. Ontario, for its part, has already reduced its carbon emissions by 19 percent in the last four years as a result of its shuttering of coal power plants, and is now turning its attention to energy inefficient buildings and vehicle emissions, this week calling for a major investment in electric vehicles.

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