Cities are acting ambitiously on climate change – and that has big implications for the rest of the planet.
Last month, urban officials attended the US-China Climate Leaders summit and announced a raft of carbon emissions targets, clean energy partnerships, and initiatives around transpacific climate diplomacy.
Organized by the White House, the US Department of State and the City of Los Angeles, the summit elevated the international community’s climate focus on cities – and for good reason. Cities are where the action is when it comes to large-scale reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. Whether that action will occur now or later, however, is still an open question.
Why focus on cities?
First, cities are responsible for 75 per cent of carbon emissions and suffer from extreme weather associated with global warming. Because of their size and populations, it’s imperative for cities to have a seat at the table. And as world leaders prepare for a Paris climate deal in December, city summits will be as essential as UN processes. This can’t be left solely in the hands of heads of state.
A clear advantage cities have over country-level pledges to reduce emissions is that city officials are able to act quicker on climate and engage citizens more effectively than distant governments. Voters often know or have met their mayor. That’s not always the case with national government officials.
Second, the summit served as an important prelude to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to Washington DC in late Septembe. At President Obama and Xi’s previous chat on climate last year, China committed to peaking its emissions by 2030 and the US to reducing emissions 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at the US-China Climate Leaders Summit, said the US-China relationship is the most consequential for addressing climate change. Image: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters.
The LA confab was intended to set the stage for further dialogue, which is why at the summit Vice President Biden argued that the US-China linkage was the “single most consequential relationship in the world”. Biden is right, given that the US and China are two top emitters. If these two move, markets and minds will move too.
Third, the summit mutes criticism that the Chinese, now the world’s largest carbon-emitting country (versus the largest per-capita emitting country, a ranking for which the US competes), aren’t acting on climate. This has been a critique from obstructionists using China as an excuse for climate inaction.
In fact, China is outpacing the world in solar and wind power and pushing hard on green transport. Shenzhen, Nanjing and Wuhan are producing tens of thousands of electric, long-range, zero-emission buses, which were on loan for summit use. A recent Stockholm Environment Institute paper shows that climate leadership by Chinese cities is real.
It was clear that Chinese cities at the summit were serious about outpacing their government’s 2030 goal, which is not an inconsequential step. These 11 Chinese cities represent 1.2 gigatons of emissions, roughly the same carbon footprint as Japan or Brazil.
When Beijing and Guangzhou stepped forward with a pledge to peak carbon emissions in 2020, even commodity traders who were present were impressed. This is indeed a big deal and the most notable climate commitment coming out of China this year.
Cities like Los Angeles (which is quitting coal by 2025) and Zhenjiang, went further and signed California Governor Brown’s Under 2 MOU, another regional effort to limit warming to two degrees Celsius and emissions to two tons per capita. When you consider that America’s average per capita emissions are close to 18 tons, this is also no small endeavor.
Solar panels installed at government agencies, such as the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Headquarters in San Diego, and on city buildings, can reduce city emissions. Image: US Navy photo by Rick Naystat.
Beyond their myriad city-level targets, a big focus for America’s summit-attending mayors – from Atlanta to Des Moines and from Republican-led Carmel to Miami-Dade – was the Compact of Mayors, the model behind the summit’s final declaration. This is something President Obama is pushing with a pre-Paris goal of getting 100 US mayors to commit to reducing local greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing resilience to climate change and tracking progress publicly.
While all of these city goals are good, and clearly complement US-China climate commitments, there’s still little focus on bringing on board the tax-paying public. Mayors need to be clearly and compellingly communicating the value of these climate goals and mindful about moving local hearts and minds, not just long-term targets and timelines.
Acting on climate in 2015 or 2050?
Politics plays a role, too. How quickly can cities implement progressive pledges given that subsequent city leaderships could always undo or slow progress? One option is to move immediately on projects and make them difficult to be undone.
Unlikely summit actors, such as Houston, are doing exactly this. This Texas city in the heart of oil country is the largest city purchaser of renewable energy in America (roughly 50 percent of the city’s energy is renewable), thanks to the state’s ample wind and solar. So too is conservative Lancaster, California, which wants to be the solar capital of the world and is requiring builders to install solar panels on new homes. The city is already halfway towards its “net zero” emissions goal.
Even the nation’s capital, home to a recalcitrant Congress on climate change, is getting in on the game, purchasing a 20-year lease to provide wind power for 35 percent of its electricity needs, which will prevent 100,000 tons of carbon emissions from entering our atmosphere annually.
Many cities are swapping out street lights with LED-based fixtures, which use less electricity and require less maintenance than older technologies. Image: meltedplastic/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.
Cities are taking steps to lower energy consumption as well. For example, Los Angeles is installing hundreds of thousands of energy-efficient LED streetlights, saving the city millions of dollars, reducing energy use by over 60 percent and cutting carbon emissions by nearly 50,000 tons a year. Other cities, including Las Vegas, San Antonio, Austin, are doing the same.
All of this is happening now, not in 10, 20, or 30 years. While long-term planning is essential for good governance, what’s going to be equally important is cultivating the constituency to keep the city climate culture on track. If voters want it, the next mayor will more likely keep it.
This is why not everyone is on board with the 2050 agenda to reduce emissions by a certain percentage. It’s not out of lack of interest, but out of lack of knowledge or experience.
Citizens and city officials need to see, in 2015, how it benefits their health, their security, their commute, their pocketbook, their diets and more. For climate commitments to have staying power, a compact with the community will be as critical as a compact with mayors. Citizen signatories will be as necessary as city signatories.
Actions in 2015 will be as important as 2050 ambition. It’s the only way these pledges – and ultimately people – will endure.