PARIS, FRANCE — As nearly 200 nations convene in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget with the hope of creating a binding international agreement on climate change, much of the world’s focus is fixed on the national and international responses to the issue.
But in Paris proper, cities are enjoying their time in the climate spotlight, with various events focusing on the progress being made at the micro level, from carbon-positive urban developments to massive deployments of electric transportation.
On December 3, leaders from more than 33 cities were honored for their efforts to fight climate change at the annual C40 awards, a ceremony dedicated to recognizing innovations and leadership in climate action at the city level.
“Cities are where things happen. If cities do something, heads of states will say, ‘Wait a second, we don’t want to be left out,’” Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and U.N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, told reporters at the event. “As cities, corporations, and individuals, you have to really solve the problem, because you’re responsible, people can see what you’re doing, and it’s your lives on the line.”
Portland mayor Charlie Hales, whose city’s 2015 Climate Action Plan was honored as a finalist at the awards, echoed Bloomberg’s confidence in cities’ abilities to push climate change on an international scale.
“When you listen to the national leaders talk about this issue, you hear a language that’s really about the allocation of burden,” Hales told ThinkProgress. “Mayors and cities are not looking at it that way, because of our experience. Portland is prospering because we’re green, because we’ve reduced our carbon footprint even while our carbon footprint and economy have grown.”
“We see climate action as an economic strategy for success, not a burden that we have to shoulder,” Hales added. “I hope that message helps in the international dialogue.”
Cities represent a massive portion of the world’s population, and therefore the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, releasing about 70 percent of the world’s total energy carbon emissions. The C40 network — a group of 80 world cities working together on climate change — alone represents more than 600 million people and a quarter of the global economy.
That means that actions taken at the city level could potentially have a huge impact on climate change at the global level — according to a report released Friday in Paris at the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, which brought together local officials from across the world, actions taken by cities through 2030 could make up a quarter of the difference between 2015 United Nations pledges and the goal of limiting goal warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.
With current national climate pledges putting the world on track for a global temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius in the coming decades, many hope that actions taken at the city level will help push the world toward a lower emissions pathway.
“It is choices taken by mayors in the next five years that will determine whether or not the world is on a high or low emissions pathway,” Eduardo Paes, C40 Chair and Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, said that the awards ceremony. “But what better hands could the world be in — cities have continued to innovate.”
We’ve seen a kind of viral spread of good ideas among cities
Hales also sees cities as playing an important climate role in the coming years, serving as a testing ground for policies and projects that could help cut carbon emissions. Cities, he said, are constantly sharing their good ideas — engineers from Johannesburg, for example, have come to Portland to learn how to apply a technology created by the Portland-based company Lucid Energy, which takes energy from municipal water pipes using tiny turbines, to their own city. And Portland’s streetcar system, which Hales calls the first modern streetcar system in the country, is being copied in places like Kansas City and Cincinnati.
“A lot of the other things that cities have done, that have made a difference in climate and are now becoming even more important, started small,” Hales said. “We’ve seen a kind of viral spread of good ideas among cities.”
Here are a few projects honored at the C40 awards that could be popping up soon in a city near you.
Cape Town — Water Conservation and Demand Management Program
Despite its location on the southern coast of Africa, Cape Town was built in a semi-arid area where water is a precious resource. At the same time, the city is experiencing rapid population growth, with its population expanding 30 percent between 2001 and 2011.
In 2007, Cape town instituted a water management plan, dubbed the Water Conservation and Demand Management Program (WCWDMP). The WCWDMP, according to city officials, is a two-pronged effort that includes both raising consumer awareness and updating existing infrastructure. Under the program, the city trained more than 1,000 plumbers and then dispatched them into low-income communities to make repairs to leaking pipes free of charge. The city also implemented campaigns to raise awareness about water use and waste, coupled with a “stepped tariff” to discourage water waste. Additionally, the city has implemented various recycling programs, such as using wastewater to irrigate crops.
Under the program, Cape Town has saved 58,473 tons CO2 per year — the equivalent of 11,168 passenger vehicles — from reduced energy demands related to water pumping and wastewater treatment. Water demand has also decreased 30 percent since 2007, despite the city’s rapid growth in population.
Vancouver — Greenest City Action Plan
In 2008, when Gregor Robertson was elected mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia, he set out to make it the greenest city in the world. In 2011, Vancouver outlined specific steps to meet that goal under the Greenest City Action Plan, which would render Vancouver both zero carbon and zero waste by 2020. The plan includes goals like reducing Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent compared to 2007 levels, requiring all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2020, and aiming to have half of the city’s transportation occur via foot, bike, or public transit.
As of 2014, Vancouver appeared to be making progress towards those goals, with emissions down 7 percent in 2014 and more than half of all trips taken in the city done via bike, foot, or public transportation. The city is also home to a growing green economy, with jobs in the green sector growing 19 percent since 2010 and employing 20,000 residents. Vancouver also created a new building code, considered to be the most advanced in the world, according to the Vancouver Sun, that has helped the city create greener buildings through things like mandatory low flow water devices and more sustainable construction material.
“This momentum that we see here in the room today and in Paris gives us great hope,” Robertson said at the award ceremony. “Let’s keep taking bold action.”
Washington, D.C. — District of Columbia Government Wind Power Purchase Agreement
In 2015, Washington, D.C. made history when it entered into an agreement with Iberdrola Renewables LLC to supply 35 percent of the government’s electricity with wind power from a 46-megawatt wind farm. It was the largest purchase of wind energy by a U.S. city to date, and also made D.C. the first city without a municipal utility to enter into a long-term wind power purchase agreement.
The agreement — which only applies to the D.C. government’s electricity, not all of D.C. — will reduce the D.C. government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent annually, saving some 10,000 tons of carbon emissions per year. That’s the same as taking nearly 2,000 passenger vehicles off the road.
D.C.’s wind power purchase agreement will also save taxpayers in the District money, by locking in lower electricity rates that will reportedly save D.C. residents $45 million over the next 20 years.
Stockholm — Stockholm Royal Seaport
It might seem counter-intuitive that a rapidly expanding urban area could have a negative carbon footprint, but that’s exactly what planners expect will happen with Stockholm’s Royal Seaport, the country’s largest urban development area. Despite the 12,000 homes and 35,000 workspaces planned for Stockholm’s Royal Seaport, the community is expected to be carbon positive, meaning it will sequester more carbon than it creates.
Planning for the community began in the early 2000s, and it is expected to be complete in 2030. Planners expect that through stringent requirements on building efficiency; the wide use and production of renewable energy throughout the community; measures to promote biking, walking, and public transport as the primary modes of transportation; and a goal of zero waste, the community could eventually reduce its carbon emissions to below zero.
It’s a lofty goal, and one that the community won’t be required to meet immediately — in 2030, it will only be required to be fossil-fuel free and emit less than 1.5 tons of carbon per person each year. Still, even that would be a huge reduction from Sweden’s average per capita emissions, which currently hang around 6 tons per person.