Cities emerge onto the climate change science agenda

The skyline of Edmonton, Canada. Photo by: Kurt Bauschardt / CC BY-SA

SEATTLE — In December 2015, nearly 2,000 mayors and local leaders gathered under the ornate ceilings of Paris City Hall to make a single argument: As the epicenters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, cities are where the battle for climate change will be won or lost.

Their voice generated a lot of attention, but ultimately did little to influence the Paris Agreement on climate change inked a few days later. Many sector watchers believe the mayors lacked something important: Robust research specifically into the role cities play in climate change.

That changed last week in Edmonton, Canada, where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convened its first conference on the science of cities’ role in climate change. Some 750 climate scientists, urban thinkers, and city leaders gathered in response to a landmark decision by the IPCC in 2016 to include a special urban-focused research track for the first time.

But the wheels of climate research grind slowly. The IPCC’s first “Special Report on Cities and Climate Change” won’t be ready until some time in the 2023-2028 window, the five-year period known as the seventh assessment report cycle in IPCC parlance. However, this week’s CitiesIPCC conference was a significant first step to lay the groundwork for the science to come — from debates about methodology for measuring greenhouse gas emissions in urban areas to candid discussions about gaps in the data.

The hope is that the eventual outcome, even if further down the road than the urgency of the climate problem might dictate, will influence what happens in cities around the world. “The CitiesIPCC Cities and Climate Change Science Conference is the first real forum where researchers and mayors from all over the world have an opportunity to discuss how to turn science into policy, while providing important feedback for the next IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Cities,” said Gino Van Begin, secretary general of ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability.

Devex rounded up three important takeaways from the first CitiesIPCC conference.

Consumption-heavy cities are much worse polluters than we thought

On a majoritarily urban planet, cities are already recognized as responsible for the lion’s share of global carbon emissions. It turns out their carbon footprint is much bigger than they realized, some 60 percent higher according to new research from the C40 Climate Leadership Group. Traditional emissions measurements have looked at the greenhouse gases billowing out from the city itself — exhaust from cars on city streets, energy used to heat downtown buildings or methane realized from household garbage hauled off the curb.

The new figures, determined by researchers at the University of Leeds, University of New South Wales, and engineering firm Arup, also take into account global trade. Cities are the hubs of the global economy, so these new figures take into account the carbon footprint of products shipped to serve upwardly mobile urban consumers, air travel for the business executives who jet between financial capitals, and the construction industry building out rapidly growing cities.

“By revealing the scale of emissions generated by the urban consumption of a range of everyday goods and services, including the food on supermarket shelves, air travel or online shopping and home delivery, consumers and policy makers can make better informed decisions about the impact their choices are having,” said C40’s Executive Director Mark Watts. “This new research will help city policy makers to better understand the true impact of their city on global climate change, and so play an ever bigger leadership role in delivering climate action.”

The new methodology radically changes the emissions calculations of cities in the developed world. Among C40’s membership, 15 cities, mostly in North America and Europe, saw their carbon footprints triple under a consumption-based model. Traditional models have focused on the direct pollution of heavy industry, which has penalized cities in manufacturing countries like Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan without considering the marketplace that drives their production patterns.

Climate R&D money should pour into city-based solutions

City leaders have made a convincing political case for their role in climate change, from a robust presence on the sidelines of the Paris Agreement negotiations to headline-grabbing moves in response to United States President Donald Trump’s climate recalcitrance. In the wake of CitiesIPCC, there is some scientific heft to back up their claims, and that should prompt those writing the checks for climate research to put money into city-based climate mitigation and adaptation.

“We need nothing short of Space Race-type R&D [research and development] from national governments into cities and climate change,” said C40’s Research Director Seth Schultz. “In order to do that you have to frame out what the need is. Up until now you haven’t gotten the state of the science congealed.”

But the research agenda laid out by the three days of intensive work by CitiesIPCC should put that demand on the right track. “This conference was a milestone on the way to a collective effort by the science, policy, and practice communities to co-create and co-design a global research agenda for the future and for forging partnerships among them,” said Shobhakar Dhakal of the Asian Institute of Technology.

With a research agenda in hand, city leaders and scientists are confident about going after some of the $100 billion pledged for the Green Climate Fund. Aromar Revi, director of the India Institute for Human Settlements, called for 1 percent of that war chest to be funneled into urban climate research. “That’s not a very large number when you’re looking at the kind of change we’re talking about, when you’re looking at the transformation of the single most important industry and system in the world,” he said.

But the empire might strike back

The optimism of a roomful of climate scientists and progressive city leaders was tempered by reality just outside the doors of the Shaw Conference Center in Edmonton. A little over 250 miles to the north of the Albertan capital, the Athabasca Tar Sands are cranking out 1.3 million barrels of oil daily, and protesters are gearing up for demonstrations this weekend in Vancouver against the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline that would carry the petroleum from Alberta to Pacific ports.

“We must not delude ourselves — there are real structural impediments to this change,” warned IPCC co-chair Debra Roberts. “We have to displace an entire global system focused on consumption. There are local revolutions in individual households, dramatic changes that cities need to make in terms of procurement policies.”

Revi offered a sobering assessment. “We’re trying to transform the single largest industry in the history of the current economic system,” he said. “What if the empire strikes back? The empire will strike back. That’s the nature of systems.”

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About the author

  • Greg

    Gregory Scruggs

    Gregory Scruggs is a journalist based in Seattle. He has a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from Columbia University. A specialist in Latin America and the Caribbean, he was a Fulbright scholar in Brazil. His coverage of the Habitat III summit and global urbanization won a 2017 United Nations Correspondent Association award. He coordinates the Seattle chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.