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Cities’ climate plans are wildly underestimating emissions

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Radical solutions to make up the shortfall, courtesy of a new report


As alarming new climate news has become a daily part of the media cycle, it’s natural to cling to suggestions that someone, somewhere is getting it right. Cities have been held up as climate champions, passing aggressive emissions targets and promoting progressive pilot programs that many believe can be models for the globe.

A new report released by C40, a global network of 94 cities that accounts for a quarter of the world’s GDP, suggests that while cities may lead the way, they’re still far from making the changes required to meet climate goals.

The new report, “The Future of Urban Consumption in a 1.5 C World,” compiled by C40, Arup, and the University of Leeds, throws cold water on the idea that cities have turned the corner on cutting carbon emissions—or are anywhere close to meeting Paris Agreement targets of capping warming at a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures.

The crux of the carbon question is consumption emissions versus production emissions. The former encompasses any and every expenditure of energy or materials used for a good or service consumed in a city. The latter only looks at the actual energy used within city limits, a much more lax standard that makes cities seem more serious about confronting climate change (not coincidentally, it’s the one used most often by governments to measure their progress).


The gulf between both standards is enormous. “The Future of Urban Consumption” found that 85 percent of the emissions related to goods and services in C40 cities are generated outside city limits. Tom Bailey, a senior research manager for C40 Cities and one of the project leader for the report, called the difference “gobsmacking.”

The report uses a pair of jeans to illustrate the difference between the two concepts. If you’re measuring the climate impact of the sale of a pair of jeans, for example, the lax standard only takes into account the energy used in the store where its sold, and whatever the consumer uses to get to and from the store. Consumption emissions would look at the total climate impact from production to purchase, including emissions that come from growing cotton, manufacturing, transporting, and selling the product.

While C40 cities have strong action-plans in place, when one factors in consumption emissions with this more holistic perspective, their current efforts fall far short of what’s needed. If left unchecked, current consumption emissions from these metro areas will rise 87 percent by 2050. To avoid what the report labels “climate breakdown,” overall emissions from high-income cities must decrease by two-thirds within the next decade.

It’s a sobering reminder of the challenge of achieving systemic economic change to meet current climate goals. But it also points to the power C40 cities represent. Using the consumption standard, C40 cities represent 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The practices put forth by the world’s largest cities can still help save the world, the thinking goes, but establishing new models of a sustainable, circular, and carbon-free economy won’t be an easy goal.

“That requires a massive reworking of how and what we consume,” said Bailey. “Consumption isn’t distributed evenly around the world. The cities in the global north need to do much more, and much quicker.

A modern apartment building under construction, with a crane overhead. Shutterstock

Rethinking the urban economy isn’t easy

In the United States, where the mantle of climate action has been taken up by local governments due to the anti-environmental policies of the Trump Administration, progressive cities have been held up as leaders in the fight to mitigate climate change. Many cities have set ambitious goals, including transportation regulations and bans aimed at reducing the use of fossil fuel-powered cars and curbing air pollution. And, in many cities, production emissions have peaked; previous reports touted how many C40 cities have hit this milestone while maintaining economic growth.

The picture gets much more serious, and the need for action becomes much clearer, once consumption emissions are taken into account. To meet the Paris Agreement target, staying within a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise by 2050, the average per-capita impact of urban consumption needs to decrease by half by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. That’s a radical shift.

C40 cities currently subscribe to a Deadline 2020 plan, an action plan that would cut 25 percent of their consumption based emissions by 2020. That’s a great start, but much more sustained action is necessary, including retrofitting infrastructure, adjusting established cities’ economies, and shifting the growth patterns of booming cities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Consider a radical, sustainable lifestyle shift—but for cities

The policy recommendations in “The Future of Urban Consumption” read like those lists of how to live a more environmentally conscious life—but for an entire city. For instance, cities need to promote more circular economy-like approaches to business and commerce, such as reducing clothing waste and cleaning up supply chains (the jeans example above isn’t purely hypothetical). According to Kristian Steele, a senior consultant at Arup, these changes include consumer-led actions, like more rental-based economic models, and promoting electrification and increased energy efficiency. If you think of cities as global citizens, this report suggests they pair back and start living within their means.

Two of the larger shifts proposed, reducing car ownership and improving the efficiency and lifespan of current buildings, are familiar to those who have read past reports and recommendations for city climate action. “The Future of Urban Consumption” says that the concerted actions it recommends on these fronts can help cities cut climate emissions by 28 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

But the suggestions dig much deeper, pushing cities to promote lifestyle choices, like changing diets to include less meat, cutting back on air travel, and retrofitting old buildings while decreasing rates of new construction. In addition to advocating for large-scale, nationwide policies to promote carbon capture and storage as well as carbon pricing or carbon taxes, these shifts would change the way economies function, and may even lead to calls to change the way success is measured.

The report frames these significant structural changes to the economy as beneficial to overall health and happiness: Eating less red meat, for instance, could prevent more than 160,000 premature deaths in C40 cities, and using fewer new clothes could save C40 residents $93 billion annually. Cutting vehicle ownership and turning streets back into bike lanes and public parks could result in space for 2.5 million more trees and 25,000 kilometers (15,534 miles) of new bike lanes.

But, if this kind of shift in the commercial ecosystem can be achieved⁠—the report is clear it’ll take extensive work and a new level of international cooperation⁠—there’s sure to be some kind of economic fallout. This reordering of urban consumption also raises question of environmental and economic justice.

“Many C40 citizens around the world don’t consume enough to meet their basic needs,” says Bailey, “so the question becomes, since there needs to be growth, how do you bring down consumption emissions while meeting this need for growth?”

The conclusions reached by “The Future of Urban Consumption” ask local leaders around the globe to raise the bar. But, like much of the dialogue around the Green New Deal, it also makes a compelling argument that our views on climate change aren’t just erroneous due to errors of measurement. There are much larger social justice issues at play, which may help frame the vital conversation on action and collaboration going forward.

“There are certain deep structural actions you can take, but most involve a slight rethink in how we do business and run our economies,” says Bailey. “We do recognize the issue of addressing climate change with the current economic trajectory, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have huge economic opportunities to business through circular economy approaches, new technology, and more sustainable action.”