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Why Cities Are Key to Success at the Paris Climate Talks

Local transit and energy initiatives can scale up to significant carbon savings.

A Paris information board reads: "Pollution - Avoid taking your cars; prefer public transportations, take the bus or your bicycle." (REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen)

Ahead of the landmark UN climate talks in Paris next week, 174 countries have filed pledges outlining how far they will go to reduce carbon emissions. These plans will be crucial in determining the outcome of the conference, which aims to create a universal agreement to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius—the point beyond which scientists believe climate change will be irrevocably catastrophic.

The pledges represent a huge step forward for the planet. For the first time, almost every country is now taking climate change seriously and investing meaningfully in mitigations. But these national pledges are not enough, on their own, to keep the planet’s thermometer from rising beyond that dangerous threshold.

To get there, cities will need to step up, too. An enormous progress report from C40, the global network of megacity mayors fighting climate change, is an important reminder that local tactics can translate on the global scale.

9,831 climate actions and counting

The report measures how well C40 partner-cities are mitigating and addressing global warming in terms of “climate actions,” which can include anything from new bike lanes to solar panel tax rebates. This year’s report, which surveys 66 of the C40 megacities, counts 9,831 such actions—an impressive number, but not the most useful metric.

For the first time, however, 19 of the participating cities (which the report does not name) reported the direct emissions reductions that resulted from a portion of their mitigation measures. Their 127 actions, in all, saved those cities a cumulative 28 metric tons of CO2—“the equivalent of nine coal-fired power stations,” according to C40.

C40

As one might guess, city reductions came largely from a few sectors: private transport, buildings, and energy supply. More surprising is that 60 percent of those cumulative CO2 savings came from just five types of actions:

  1. Time/day restrictions on personal vehicle usage
  2. Bus-rapid transit
  3. Entering into long-term contracts with renewable energy providers
  4. Energy efficient appliance purchases in private residential housing
  5. Landfill gas management

Besides emissions savings, these measures also represent other benefits, such as “reduced congestion, air quality improvements, and, in certain cases, direct financial benefits,” the C40 report explains.

Local efforts can scale up

Of course, 28 metric tons of CO2 is just a fraction of the carbon savings required to keep the world from calamitous warming. But these high-impact measures are concrete examples that other cities, businesses, and local governments can follow. And the fact that such carbon savings come from just a few types of actions shows how local efforts can scale up to significant impacts if enough players are on board. National leaders should be paying attention.

The report also highlights the potential for carbon savings with new infrastructure development, especially in the world’s fastest-growing cities. In particular, energy infrastructure holds great promise, as the price-tag on solar and wind power drops faster than anyone could have predicted. In The Conversation, University of Michigan infrastructure historian Paul N. Edwards writes optimistically on how quickly the world can transition to renewables:

First, in the case of electricity, only the power sources need replacement; power grids – the poles, wires and other gear that transport electricity – must be managed differently, but not rebuilt from scratch. Second, less developed countries may take advantage of renewable technologies to “leapfrog” almost entirely over older infrastructures.

According to UN estimates, urban areas account for 71 to 76 percent of the world’s energy-related emissions. If cities provide the financial, social and political support to the technologies that enable low-carbon energy development, the world will be far better off for it.

None of this is to say that cities alone can keep the world within its less-than-2-degree warming target. Countries must keep working for stronger, more ambitious carbon-cutting policies at the national level. But cities are, and will continue to be, crucial in getting humans where we need to be.

The UN Environmental Programme recognizes this. In a report released earlier this month, it calculated that city-level climate initiatives so far (including those of C40, the Compact of Mayors and the carbonn Climate Registry) will deliver 1.08 gigatonnes of carbons emissions reductions by 2020. That’s a small but meaningful dent in the world’s remaining carbon budget. The report identified cities—not to mention companies, regions, and provinces—as essential partners for global policymakers in fighting climate change.

In Paris—perhaps our last, best chance to save the planet—we can expect to see new bonds form.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.