COP21 guest blog – Prof. Andy Gouldson

Andrew Gouldson is Professor of Environmental Policy and Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor. Andy’s research is interdisciplinary, and he works with governments, NGOs, community groups and other organisations to create impact-oriented research; and he has a special interest in the role of cities in mitigating climate change.

Cities have to be central to the fight against climate change. Currently, they are home to more than half of the world’s population and they generate more than 80% of all GDP. As they consume nearly 75% of global energy, they are responsible for a similar share of the world’s energy related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And they are growing at a staggering rate. Worldwide the urban population is growing by more than 1.2 million people a week and enormous levels of investment are flowing into urban expansion and the underpinning infrastructure. These investments will lock cities – and therefore the world – into either a higher or a lower carbon development path for decades to come.

But climate negotiations in Paris are focused on securing an agreement between national governments. Thus far, these national governments have tended to overlook the significance of cities and the role that they could play in tackling climate change. This isn’t to say that national governments are not important – they need to play a leading role in tackling climate change, but it is questionable whether they can do this effectively unless they involve cities more centrally. This is reflected in the pledges that almost all national governments have made to reduce their emissions in advance of the Paris talks. Analysis shows that when added up, delivery of these pledges would not fully close the gap between ‘business as usual’ emissions and the levels required if the world is to have a good chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change. More needs to be done – and cities could be the actors to do much of it.

Recent analysis for the Global Commission on Economy and Climate has explored the potential for cities around the world to adopt a number of already available low carbon measures in the buildings, transport and waste sectors. These measures include things like promoting more efficient buildings with more renewables and better appliances, more compact cities that generate less transport demand and that have more public transport and more efficient and lower emission vehicles for the demand there is, and more recycling and better waste management. None of this is rocket science – the technologies are already tried and tested, they just need to be much more widely adopted.

If national governments have overlooked this potential in the pledges that they have made, and if these national pledges only add up to half of those required to avoid dangerous climate change, then the analysis suggests that cities could deliver up to 40% of the difference just by adopting these readily available measures. Critically, it also shows that adopting these measures in cities around the world makes sound economic sense. Under realistic conditions, these measures would generate enormous reductions in the energy bills of cities and the people and businesses within them. The analysis estimated that the stream of savings for the world’s cities would have a current value of US$16.6 trillion in the period to 2050. As impressive as this figure is, it is important to note that it excludes the multiple social benefits that could also accrue – relating for example to reduced congestion, reduced air pollution and improved public health.

Support is needed as cities – and especially those in lower- and middle-income countries – frequently lack the powers and the capacities needed to steer their own development. The policy levers needed to do so tend to be found in for example the economic, energy, transport, housing and planning departments at the national, regional and local levels. Tackling the issues requires a coordinated, cross-sectoral, multi-level approach that is frequently absent. However, providing a compelling economic case for urban action on climate change can help to move the issue from what unfortunately are often weak and peripheral environmental departments into the mainstream of policy making.

The barriers to change can be formidable – but international and national action is helping to create a context in which they can be more readily overcome. The support is not only top-down – city-to-city learning is playing a major role, and success stories and best practices are frequently being scaled up and rolled out. But if an international agreement between national governments in Paris recognized and supported the potential for climate action in cities more effectively, then the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change could be brought within reach.