Cities and Climate Change

We are facing a “deadly collision between urbanization and climate change”. This is the warning given in the 2011 Global Report on Human Settlements published by UN-Habitat. It comes at a time when expectation is rock bottom that governments will achieve a positive outcome at the climate summit in Durban. The UN-Habitat report recognises that many local authorities are implementing adaptation and mitigation measures. However, it says that climate change is still seen as a “marginal issue” by most policy makers. Furthermore, the connections between urbanisation and climate change are often overlooked, though they are crucially important.

Measuring emissions from urban areas

Measuring the contribution that different urban areas make to greenhouse gas emissions is both important for policy and also problematic. It is necessary to take account not only of emissions produced in urban centres, e.g. via factories located there, but also of urban-based consumption patterns that drive up emissions, even if production sources are elsewhere. This is of fundamental importance, as otherwise the shifting of production to countries beyond carbon emission reduction targets can easily be touted as a “solution” from the perspective of the developed world.

Following this line of reasoning the UN-Habitat report argues for city-specific baselines, which can then be used as a reference point for planning reductions in the future. A new, standard method for cities to calculate GHG emissions produced within their boundaries. The International Standard for Determining Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Cities provides a common method for cities to use, though the varying approaches to defining a city’s boundary remain a complication.

Notwithstanding these caveats, it is clear that different cities vary hugely in their GHG emissions. Things like climate, household size, density and urban form are all noted. However, wealth and consumption patterns underlie all these and more.

The role of urban authorities

The report calls for “a more central role for sub-national and urban governments in global responses to climate change.” Of course some cities have taken important initiatives, both locally and through international partnerships. National governments are urged to give the cities more powers in this field: however, the repeated failures of national governments leave me doubtful that this polite request is enough. If the world’s cities could really pull together on this one, sidestepping their national governments, maybe we could see some progress, but I am not holding my breath for this to happen.

The starting point has to be for the city authorities to tackle their own emissions in a way that shows they are serious. As individual consumption is so important, urban authorities also have a leadership role to play. Last but not least, let’s get the planning right. As the report says, “Through their responsibilities for land-use planning and attracting investment, city authorities can help to shape the policy environment within which a range of other stakeholders act. Encouraging relatively dense urban settlements can reduce distances travelled by urban residents and can make public transportation a more appealing prospect. A combination of regulations (e.g. in relation to commercial and industrial energy standards) and incentives (e.g. to support buildings with ‘green roofs’ or passive solar heating) can help to encourage businesses in cities to operate in a way that reduces their contribution to climate change.”

Environmental justice

Perhaps the most fundamental point being made by the authors of the UN-Habitat report is that at heart climate change is an issue of environmental justice. It is the poor countries and the poor in the cities who are least responsible for the problems, but most exposed to the consequences.

Very basic things like decent housing and all-weather roads could make a huge difference. There really is a role here for the built environment professions. We have a lot of the know-how for adaptation and mitigation, yet it is not delivered to those who need it most. The professionals need to learn to work outside their traditional comfort zones, and to practice their skills in an inclusive way if they are to be of real assistance. This report points them in that direction.  However, the main block is not the professionals but the wealthy – globally and the national elites.

At the very least, as experts in urbanisation, our voice should be heard. We should be saying that how we manage the cities is of fundamental importance to managing climate change. The pace, scale and global geography of urban growth has to be factored in to any attempt to grasp the consequences of the failures of governments to tackle climate change.