can be the key to tackling climate change? It is a little known fact but about 70% of cities are already dealing with the effects of climate change, and because more than 90% of all urban areas are coastal, the vast majority of cities is at risk of experiencing some form of climate change impact such as flooding, rising sea levels of powerful storms¹.
But despite their apparent vulnerabilities, cities can also be critical to reversing the impacts of climate change. Cities are the hubs of our economic activity and can densely populated. This means that even though they cover less than 2% of the planet’s surface, they have a disproportionately high environmental footprint. For example, cities consume 78% of all energy and more than 60% of carbon dioxide along with other greenhouse gases¹. But it is exactly because of this high environmental footprint, that when even relatively smaller cities implement changes, these can bring about big results.
Positive impacts of cities in the fight against climate change
To get cities to change the way they operate and develop, we need city policies and actions plans, we need regulations for urban planning and the environment and we need to step up public awareness². When cities are properly planned, run and capacitated they can have a tremendously positive impact in the fight against climate change. With the right policies in place, a city’s energy demand can be curtailed and its greenhouse gas emissions lowered extensively. This all comes down to the specific lifestyle, public transport and infrastructure that each city seeks to develop which if properly coordinated can enhance national policies³.
For example, policy instruments such as congestion charges can reduce the use of cars while promoting and investing in integrated public transport, pedestrian zones and cycle infrastructure incentivises citizens to alter the way they travel and commute. Even the availability of online services and applications can help, for instance by monitoring and reporting real-time departures and arrivals of buses, trams and other means of public transport⁴. City planning systems can help create a market for “smart” buildings which will help reduce a city’s overall carbon and resource consumption.
What is more, it is interesting to note that one key way in which we can support the transition to a low carbon economy is by ensuring we can deliver effective waste management solutions. The issue of waste is primarily dealt at a local or city level as local authorities are in charge of the collection of waste or appointing private entities to do so on their behalf. Given that cities currently generate around 1.3 billion tonnes of waste each year; this is an area where even some progress can deliver great results⁵. So if cities developed waste management systems that enabled increased collection and recovery of materials from households and enterprises, this would go a long way to reduced carbon emissions. The same can be said of initiatives to tackle food waste.
Local action is in many ways easier to translate into policy which is why a number of city, local and regional networks have been set up to help cities exchange best practice and ideas. For example, in the EU the European Commission awards a Green Capital award, while cities across Europe have set up the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy where regional authorities voluntarily commit to implementing EU climate and energy objectives on their territory. For example, signatories have pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 40% by 2030⁶.
Perhaps even better than realising the potential of cities to help in the fight against climate change is the fact that urban populations are more likely than not to embrace and support policies for greening their city. Surveys suggest that urban populations place a higher premium on sustainability, which means that city mayors, councillors and others should be able to successfully implement policies that will enhance citizens’ wellbeing while also tackling climate change⁴.
This highlights the importance of regional, local and in this specific case city level action to tackle climate change. Our policies need to reflect the fact that action at different levels of government is a prerequisite in the fight against climate change so funding and financing, information sharing and expertise as well as the opportunity to implement new initiatives should cut through all levels of government.