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Cities, on front lines of climate change, can make outsized difference

A new C40 report argues cities can boost the economy while responding to pressing climate change crisis

Air pollution in Paris; a new C40 report suggests that cities have the potential to make a significant dent in carbon emissions.

Cities are essential to fighting climate change, according to new research released today, both oversized contributors to the problem, but also, with the right policy, potential saviors when it comes to cutting carbon emissions.

Toward a Healthier World, a new report released by C40, a global network of cities committed to confronting climate change, argues that progressive urban policy can not only make a significant dent in the problem, but benefit the economy at the same time.

“This research quantifies and provides the business case for what mayors have long known to be true: taking bold climate action also improves public health,” C40 executive director Mark Watts said in a statement. “There is no longer any trade-off for cities between delivering policies that benefit the environment, drive economic growth and improve the health of citizens.”

Cities are where climate change is both fueled and felt: urban areas generate 70 percent of the globe’s CO2, while at the same time 80 percent of city dwellers are regularly exposed to unsafe air quality. A recent World Health Organization report estimates that globally, 630 million children under 5 years old are exposed to unsafe air.

Transportation is a key issue for cities seeking to cut carbon emissions.

The last few months have brought a series of deathly serious reports on the state of the Earth’s climate.

Between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s October report and last week’s National Climate Assessment, a government report that detailed how climate change is currently impacting the U.S. and its economy, the breadth and depth of the climate change challenge has only ramped up debate on what solutions to pursue, and the political will necessary to enact such sweeping changes. Reports like C40’s seek to answer that question by positioning cities as the answer.

A game plan for cities to combat climate change

The new report laid out a series of actions C40’s 96 member cities could take now that would have significant impact, touching nearly every aspect of urban policy. Many cities have experimented with, or enacted, a handful of these policies, suggesting that, taken one by one, they’re far from fringe suggestions.

They include revamping transportation systems to bolster walking, cycling, and mass transit, as well as prioritizing transit-oriented development and introducing zero-emission districts in cities. A number of mayors have already pledged to create carbon-free zones, including in Barcelona, Paris, Seattle, and Mexico City, and an earlier C40 report showed that 27 cities around the globe have already seen their emission peak, suggesting it is possible to combine growth and emissions reductions.

Transportation has become a central issue, if not the core issue, for cities seeking to claim an environmentally progressive mantle and truly start cutting their environmental footprints. In the United States, in particular, while cities such as Sacramento have begun experimenting with reducing the share of trips taken with cars, more action needs to be taken to alter the transportation system if cities have any hopes of meeting their emissions reductions targets.

For building and zoning, cities need to introduce stringent energy-efficiency standards and codes, and work to improve heating, ventilation, and lighting via automation and controls to cut energy usage. Industrial plants also need to be a focus of energy efficiency retrofits and technology, especially emissions capture.

Can cities seize the moment to make significant change?

If the steps laid out in the C40 report were to be taken, in concert with a decarbonized energy grid, the result would be an 87 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 223,000 premature deaths averted, and $583 billion in economic benefit.

The report, funded in part by Johnson & Johnson Services Inc. and conducted by C40 in collaboration with BuroHappold and Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants, hinges on some significant steps, including decarbonizing the power grid.

But as awareness grows among citizens, as well as demand for climate action—in the U.S., the Green New Deal has become one of the more discussed policy proposals awaiting the newly elected Congress, and polling suggest the public is more receptive to climate action—these policies may form the backbone of a larger effort.

The scale of change required by any serious solution, as well as the disruption expected from the impacts of climate change, will be immense, especially for coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels.

“These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors,” says the IPCC report.

But as C40’s plan suggests, in either case, cities will likely be the front lines for fighting climate change.