We can cut emissions in half by 2040 – but only if we build smarter cities

Shanghai's Jinmao Tower, under construction in 2009. Image: Getty.

As a planet, we have some serious climate targets to meet in the coming years. The Paris Agreement, signed by 192 countries, set an aspirational goal of limiting global warming to 1.5ᵒC. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, set to be achieved by 2030, commit the world to “take urgent action” on climate change.

All this will require ridding our economies of carbon. If we’re to do so, we need to completely rethink our cities.

The UN’s peak climate body showed in its most recent report that cities are crucial to preventing drastic climate change. Already, cities contribute 71 per cent to 76 per cent to energy-related carbon emissions.

In the Global South, energy consumption and emissions in urban areas tend to be way higher than those in rural areas. Future population growth is expected to take place almost entirely in cities and smaller urban settlements. Unfortunately, those smaller centres generally lack the capacity to properly address climate change.

China’s “New-type Urbanisation Policy” aims to raise its city populations from 54.2 per cent in 2012 to 60 per cent in 2020. This will mean building large urban infrastructure projects, and investing trillions of dollars into new developments. Meanwhile, India’s sheer volume of urbanisation and infrastructure needs are phenomenal.

The problem with infrastructure

Infrastructure contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in two ways: through construction (for example, the energy footprints of cement, steel and aluminium used in the building process) and through the things that go on to use that infrastructure (for example, cars or trains using new roads or tracks).

In a recent study, my colleagues and I have shown that the design of today’s transportation systems, buildings and other infrastructure will largely determine tomorrow’s CO2 emissions.

Less of this, please. Image: Getty.

But by building climate-smart urban infrastructure and buildings, we could cut future emissions in half from 2040 onwards. We could reduce future emissions by ten gigatonnes per year: almost the same quantity currently being emitted by the United States, Europe and India put together (11 gigatonnes).

We assessed cities’ potential to reduce emissions on the basis of three criteria: the emissions savings following upgrades to existing infrastructure; emissions savings from using new, energy-efficient infrastructure; and the additional emissions generated by construction.

In established cities, we found that considerable progress can be made through refurbishment of existing infrastructure. But the highest potential is offered by construction of new, energy-efficient projects from the beginning. The annual reductions that could be achieved by 2040 by using new infrastructure is three to four times higher than that of upgrading existing roads or buildings.

With this in mind, governments worldwide must guide cities towards low-carbon infrastructure development and green investment.


Urbanisation is about more than megacities

Significant opportunities exist to promote high-density living, build urban set-ups that mix residential, work and leisure in single spaces, and create better connectivity within and between cities. The existing window of opportunity to act is narrowing over time, as the Global South develops rapidly. It should not be missed.

Besides global megacities such as Shanghai and Mumbai, smaller cities must also be a focus for lowering emissions. Studies have shown a paradox for these places: the capacity for governance and finance are lower in the smaller cities, despite the fact that the majority of future urban populations will grow there, and they will expand quicker than their larger cousins.

We must give up on our obsession with megacities. Without building proper capacity in mid- and small-sized cities to address climate solutions, we cannot meet our climate goals.

Perhaps most important is raising the level of ambition in the existing climate policies in cities of all sizes, making them far-reaching, inclusive and robust. Despite the rhetoric, the scale of real change on ground from existing cities climate actions are unproven and unclear.

Existing cities’ climate mitigation plans and policies, such as in Tokyo, London, Bangkok, and activities promoted by networks such as ICLEI, C40, Covenant of Mayors for Energy and Environment are a good start; they must be appreciated but further strengthened.

But, to further support these good ideas, the world urgently needs support measures for urban mitigation from local to global levels together with a tracking framework and agreed set of indicators for measuring the extent of progress towards low-carbon future.

Only if we start with cities, big and small, will we manage to limit warming to 1.5°C.The Conversation

Shobhakar Dhakal is associate professor at the Asian Institute of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.