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Cities Can’t Combat Climate Change Alone

| Thursday October 13th, 2011 | 1 Comment

By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and are responsible for 70 percent of global CO2 emissions. It will be cities, not individual states or governments, who will need to employ effective urban planning, implement eco-friendly ordinances, reduce emissions, and plan for the coming effects of climate change. In Life in the Big City: Unlocking Smart Development (SXSW Eco), the discussion centered around the premise that cities, centers of global economic activity and innovation, have the greatest power to impact climate change. But can they do it alone?

Melanie Nutter, Director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, described C40, an international cities climate leadership group started in 2005, and Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) Cities as two vital tools cities are using to educate themselves on the impact of climate change, take their own measure, and make a plan for reduction. 57 percent of CDP reporting cities are adopting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and 62 have established action plans to deal with climate change.

Nutter herself projects that by 2050, San Francisco is looking at a 15-inch sea level rise, climbing to a 55-inch rise by 2100. This would put the airport and 99 miles of roads under water, resulting in $48 billion in infrastructure damage. Nutter and the city planners have aggressively set measures in place to combat this coming change, including achieving zero waste by 2020 – currently SF recycles, composts or reuses 77 percent of its waste, the nation’s highest diversion rate.

Nutter reeled off impressive statistics, followed by more achievements and even more accomplishments. San Francisco is clearly a city that is making an impact, but what about everyone else?

Robin Rather, CEO of Collective Strength, Inc., assumed the role of devil’s advocate. Rather believes there is too much focus on cities at the expense of suburbs and rural areas. In politics, she said, there is a war being raged against sustainability, fought in the majority of U.S. cities. Why are they losing? Because many people are left out of the solution. We are championing cities, especially progressive ones like San Francisco, but leaving less successful cities, suburbs and rural areas out in the cold. Without banding together, sustainability will lose the fight.

Rather maintained that we need to focus on wounded cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and New Orleans, as well as everyday cities like Tulsa who are, for the most part, ignored. Super-hip cities are doing just fine on their own.

We need to define sustainability, smart growth and livability in plain terms, because they mean nothing to the average person. Rather defines a sustainable community as “an urban, suburban or rural community that has more housing and transportation choices, is closer to jobs, shops or schools, is more energy independent, and helps protect the air and water.” Using this definition, 79 percent of people in this country understand and agree with it, with only 5 percent opposed. It’s all about presenting it to people in a relatable, easy-to-understand way.

Many discussions at SXSW Eco came back to communication and messaging. How can we get people to come together on this issue? Jeff Smith, VP of Communications Sector Software at IBM, agreed with Rather. He underscored the importance of looking ahead and not ignoring coming changes, how any strategy has to balance the needs of all involved (cities, suburbs and rural land), and presenting a united front to move forward. Nutter agreed, saying that engagement was critical to San Francisco’s success. Somehow, in some way, we need to find a way to engage people regardless of their location and define goals unique to each situation and location.


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  • Glenn Mungra

    “I suppose only when it’s deemed important enough by a wave of enough citizens and profitable enough for collaborating smart companies, all local municipal communities and government departments will follow and facilitate the needed platforms for change.”