Cities Are Leading The Charge On Climate Action

by Ben Bovarnick

While many national governments struggle to take comprehensive action on climate change, major cities around the globe are acting on their own.

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) recently released a report tracking initiatives cities are taking to address their greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these municipal governments — plagued by heat waves and flooding — recognize the urgent need to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Cities account for 70 percent of global emissions while occupying just 2 percent of dry land. The 53 cities that publicly disclose city wide emissions together produce more than 977 million tonnes of CO2 — or the equivalent emissions of Germany.

While cities are a major source of carbon emissions, they’re also a hotbed of activity to reduce that global warming pollution.

Reacting to the dangers posed by climate change, 59 cities are taking a total of 630 city-wide actions to limit their emissions.  The most common measure is reducing the energy demand of buildings, with 133 efforts to do so in 48 cities. 47 cities have also initiated 129 actions to reduce transportation emissions.  In order to achieve this, cities are frequently using their general municipal funds, though there also exists “a wide variety of outside sources” like state grants, national funding, and UN programs to tap into.

To adapt to a changing climate, these cities are creating urban green spaces, developing storm water capture systems, and promoting “green roofs.” 30 cities have cultivated green spaces and planted trees to provide citizens a respite from the heat.  Six cities have begun developing flood defense systems in anticipation of rising sea levels.  This is a major concern for coastal cities, as increases in sea levels are expected to place low lying urban necessities, such as airports, at risk.

Sixty cities have also identified opportunities for economic growth from green jobs and the development of new industries.  Houston expects to create 168,000 green jobs. Portland’s Clean Energy Works program created jobs for 400 workers retrofitting 1,200 homes through a $25 million loan program.

In order to encourage local development of clean energy and emissions reductions, these cities are coming up with innovative solutions to encourage building owners to make changes. For example, Chicago created a competition among commercial building owners in 2009, recognizing local businesses that achieve specific green goals over the course of a year. Another common practice is to streamline the permitting processes for siting clean energy projects.

Moving forward, cities will continue to be the epicenter of action on climate change. Discussing the action cities are taking at Rio+20, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters, “We’re not arguing with each other about emissions targets.  What we’re doing is going out and making progress.”

Ben Bovarnick is an intern on the energy policy team at the Center for American Progress.


6 Responses to Cities Are Leading The Charge On Climate Action

  1. Robert Blum says:

    If cities are really leading the charge, then there is a huge amount they can do with more effective outdoor lighting codes and efficient lighting technology. Its absolutely a win for everyone. Less energy used, less light pollution and darker skies for all to appreciate the glory of the night sky, and mitigation of health risks to humans due to unnatural light at night which may adversely affect us.

    A good place to start is the International Dark Sky Association:

  2. Yes, a number of US cities are doing positive work toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

    The work of progressive US cities is especially hopeful compared to the disastrous deadlock we see at the national level.

    However, given the reality of climate challenges, we should also be realistic about how far even our best cities have to go.

    A really long way to go.

    I have not seen a city climate plan or program yet that is actually quantitatively matched to the necessary levels of emissions reductions.

    It’s not that hard to estimate the probable quantitative impact of city GHG reduction programs, and it is essential that we move beyond ”listing the good works” and start judging progress relative to the necessary 5% absolute emissions reductions needed, year on year, for decades to come.

    Seriously, it is past time for screwing around with vague feel-good proclamations. The only thing to crow about – the kind of leadership that counts – is actually being measured to be achieving the long term reductions glide path.

  3. Scott says:

    Excellent, timely article. Indeed cities are very much becoming the epicenter of action on climate change. Here’s a link to a current “CityLinks” program launched by USAID’s Urban Programs Team. The 5 year program has a particular emphasis on the impacts of Climate Change on urban systems and the needs of the urban poor.

  4. BillD says:

    Just finished reading David Owen’s book–the Conunbrum. Among other things, he points out that large cities have much lower per capita carbon foot prints. For example, many people in NYC don’t have cars, live in small apartments in energy efficient buildings, use public transportation and don’t accumulate some much stuff. Low density places, much of the west and northern New England are much less green.

  5. john atcheson says:

    I’m sorry, but there is no “charge” on climate change. Barely a creep is about the best you could say. And yeah, many of the large cities have made commitments and some are actually doing some stuff, but geez, this is a global problem, and we are not gong to get there without a global commitment.

    Sorry, I know that sounds very jaded, but facts are facts and false optimism is useless — even harmful — at the end of the day.

  6. Kyle Sager says:

    State and local politics is a great place to start, especially state. Learn (if you are able) when your state assembly convenes. My state, Georgia, is one of the top 10 CO2 emitters from fixed sources (power, refining, etc). Georgia votes on all laws between Jan and the 1st week of April.
    Last year 1/2 of Georgia Lawmakers (house) voted against laws the would give homeowners the power to choose solar over the HPA. More important financing legislation was buried in the senate and never brought to vote. Some states will have state assembly pages that make it more difficult for citizens to see what is happening. Citzens in those states should demand transparency.