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Cities fighting climate change: a hopeful story from 2016

Urban centers continued to emerge as centers of green innovation and reasons for cautious optimism

Illustration city environment Shutterstock

During the closing days of 2016, it may feel pretty challenging to find an optimistic take on the fight to combat climate change. Recent news about spiking Arctic temperature and the policy preferences of the incoming Trump administration don’t inspire confidence. Neither does the fact that 2016 is on track to be the hottest year in recorded history. And while the big picture view seems less than rosy, focusing on national and international stories may obscure the important advances being made on the city and local level.

This was the year when cities and urban areas were finally, truly embraced for being testing grounds for environmental improvements, as opposed to dirty, pollution-spewing centers of industry. Part of this has to do with a changing economy and globalized manufacturing, but a much bigger part of it has to do with the wealth of focused, local action on community improvements, and the creation of denser, healthier, more walkable neighborhoods.

Cities produce the majority of the world’s pollution, and also stand on the front lines of climate-related issues such as sea level rise, transportation, air pollution, and green energy, and increasingly, they’re fighting for a better way forward. Here are some of the highlights from a big year for cities and climate change.

Solar panels in Shanghai
Solar panels in Shanghai

Cities are reaping the rewards of working together

Both nationally and internationally, cities are seeing the benefits of banding together to share ideas and creating political coalitions to help push progressive environmental policy. The C40 group of cities held a summit in Mexico City this fall to strategize about battling climate change and recognized international leaders in climate action. The group has also been a source of leadership on the international level, pushing the Paris climate accords and even creating the Women4Climate initiative to support new female leaders.

“As women mayors and city leaders we can’t rely on anyone else to take the lead on creating a sustainable world for future generations,” says C40 Chair and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. “We are more than ready for the challenge.”

In the United States, as the gulf on climate action widens between blue state cities and the incoming federal government, municipalities are forging an independent path towards sustainability. The Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign has attracted scores of cities looking to make the switch towards 100 percent renewable power, and many U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, are pushing their own energy and transportation plans forward.

New technologies and think tanks are making cities smarter and more energy efficient

2016 has also been a banner year for the creation of more and more institutions and funds dedicated to developing urban technology. The Rockefeller Foundation and Unreasonable Institute created a new program to fund research into solving our biggest urban issues, while the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge not only gave a massive $40 million grant to Columbus, Ohio, to develop smarter, more sustainable transportation systems, it spurred on similar pilots and programs in more than a dozen other cities.

With companies such as Google/Alphabet spin-off Sidewalk Labs getting involved in smart city technology, and a new generation of high-tech sensors, such as Chicago’s Array of Things, making real-world, real-time testing easier, our cities are becoming smarter and even better at conserving resources.

A Gold Line train enters Mission Station in South Pasadena
A Gold Line train enters Mission Station in South Pasadena

Public transportation won big at the ballot box across the country

The people have spoken. City voters said yes to better, more efficient transportation systems in many parts of the country this past fall, so billions of dollars will now be spent on bigger and better light rail systems, helping cut carbon pollution and create more walkable urban neighborhoods. But trains aren’t the only answer. Cities across the country are also experimenting with ridesharing and ridehailing, working with companies such as Uber to subsidize ride, creating their own ridehailing systems, and welcoming autonomous vehicle testing.

While it’s at risk, ratification of the UN Climate Accord was groundbreaking

While Trump looks likely to ignore or not fulfill the Paris agreement, despite many people’s best intentions, the passage of the international agreement to curb climate emissions is still a landmark in the environmental movement, and provides hope for further collaborations down the road.

Green infrastructure gets city support

Whether they’re far-reaching changes to urban planning such as Barcelona’s plans to create superblocks, new parks and public spaces, or a proliferation of urban farming and agriculture, more cities are making bigger investments in green infrastructure. It’s not just about cleaner air and greener cities, though those seem like pretty great benefits by themselves. Green infrastructure makes sound financial sense, according to research from the Sustainable Cities Collective, and large-scale programs to update energy, transport, and utility systems could result in trillions of dollars—yep, trillions with a “T”—savings by 2050.