State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Cities Produce the Emissions. Cities Must Deal With Them.

This is the eleventh of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

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By Elliott Sclar

It is always good news when the international community gathers to address an important problem. On the other hand, an international conference on climate change implicitly frames this as a nation-state problem. It is, for all intents and purposes, an urban problem.

Nations are supposed to be the ones governing carbon emissions; yet it is the world’s metropolitan regions where those emissions come from. In aggregate, they occupy less than 1 percent of the planet’s surface, but account for over 70 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. By midcentury, three of every four of us will live in urban places. There can be no meaningful reduction in emissions that does not fully account for this global reality. Addressing this critical misalignment between politics and demographics must be a high priority at Copenhagen.

The conference is proceeding in a world guided by two overarching policy ideas. The first asserts that robust economic growth and vigorous competition are necessary for attaining prosperity in developing countries. The other argues that we need to transition to a low, or better yet, no carbon global economy.  These two views do not necessarily have to compete with each other—but they might end up competing, if we do not figure out how cities are going to handle them.

We are essentially asking the city regions of the developing world—the global south–to compete against one another for a share of global wealth. These places are literally not yet set in concrete, so they do not have to retrofit to operate on low carbon budgets; they can develop with low-carbon strategies from the start. Unfortunately, virtually none will be able to muster the upfront investments to develop the new technologies they will need. Thus, absent massive and direct support to city and regional governments, it is sheer fantasy to think that they will, on their own, employ those technologies. It is more realistic to assume that they will aim for the quick adoption of existing high-carbon development, given the urgency of their immediate situation.

In the global north, the reverse is the case. Cities in high-income countries presently operating on high-carbon budgets will be retrofitted to mitigate carbon emissions and have their infrastructure adapted to the new climate reality. These places have or soon will get the needed resources from their more affluent societies. Any climate agreement, if it is to be effective, will have to directly provide resources to the cities of the global south. If all cities can’t have sustainable futures, then none will. That is simply the new reality of our interconnected climate.

While it is easy to understand historically why this is a meeting of nation-states, we can no longer afford the political convenience and expediency of framing carbon challenges in purely national terms. It is time to fashion a global approach that aligns the governance of emissions with their sources.

Elliott Sclar, an economist, directs the Center for Sustainable Urban Development.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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