Official greenhouse gas data for the direct pollution caused by cities is highly exaggerated, according to a new study published in next month’s issue of the journal Environment and Urbanization. The article points out that while Western cities are not directly as polluting as they are believed to be, they house people responsible for the bulk of our planet’s environmental problems; the shop till you drop consumer.
Cities, which are blamed for creating 75 to 80 percent of the world’s emissions, only are responsible for around half that amount, according to the article. United Nations agencies, former US President Bill Clinton’s climate change initiative and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have all stated that between 75 and 80 per cent of emissions come from cities.
Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that only two-fifths of all greenhouse gases from human activities are generated within cities. Agriculture and deforestation account for around 30 percent, and the rest are mostly from heavy industry, wealthy households and coal, oil or gas fuelled power stations located in rural areas and in urban centres too small to be considered cities.
So the picture is drastically different. The article’s author, David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), says that instead of blaming cities we ought to think of them as solution brokers. “Blaming cities for greenhouse gas emissions misses the point that cities are a large part of the solution,” Satterthwaite, who’s a senior fellow at the institute, says.
The potential for cities to help address climate change, efforts that are documented in great detail on websites like Sustainlane.com and Postcarboncities.net, is being overlooked because of the miscalculations.
Well planned, well governed cities can provide high living standards that do not require high consumption levels and high greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, it can even be misleading to allocate greenhouse gas emissions specific locations, according to the article. For instance, emissions from power stations should be allocated to those that consume the electricity, not the places where the power stations are located. Emissions generated by industries should likewise be allocated to the person consuming the goods the industries produce.
This suggestions shows that academic thinking about the practice of sustainable living is shifting. It’s becoming much more practical yet probably has a long way to go. A recent article on PostCarbonCities.net highlights the issues at stake when the subject of academic thinking and sustainability is on the table. Academic thinking about sustainability has progressed quite a bit in the past two decades, yet the practice of sustainability has lagged, according to the report which is entitled ‘We Need To Get Smarter About Sustainability”.
Countless scholars are now working on concepts like the “sustainability triad” like the one Triple Pundit is modeled on (people-planet-profit/ecology-society-economy). And concepts like ecological economics are beginning to be firmly established now. “But our practice of sustainability however has lagged”, according to the article on PostCarbonCities.
“It’s at [the] local level that both governmental and academic attention now needs to focus: How do we translate the need to reduce oil consumption into urban development practices that encourage renewable energy? How do we apply the lessons of resource use, connectivity and collapse in complex adaptive ecosystems to those ecological-social-economic systems known as cities and suburbs?”
One suggestion that Satterthwaite offers here is allocating some of the responsibility for greenhouse gas production to the end consumer. “Consumer demand drives the production of goods and services, and therefore the emission of greenhouse gases,” says Satterthwaite. You might be highly objected to this, but hear him out because he might have a point; “Allocating emissions to consumers rather than producers shows that the problem is not cities but a minority of the world’s population with high-consumption lifestyles. A large proportion of these consumers live not in cities but in small towns and rural areas.”
That might be a very practicable solution, all the more because allocating greenhouse gas emissions to consumers increases the share of global emissions from Europe and North America and highlights the very low emissions per person of most city inhabitants in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Wealthy people outside cities are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than those in cities as they have larger homes that need to be heated or cooled, more automobiles per household and greater automobile use.
The way cities are designed and run can make a big difference according to the article. Most cities in the United States have three to five times the gasoline use per person of most European cities but not three to five times the living standards. Satterthwaite points out that cities offer many opportunities to reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions, such as by promoting walking, bicycling and public transport and having building designs that require much less energy for heating and cooling.
Achieving the needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide depends on seeing and acting on the potential of cities to combine a high quality of life with low greenhouse gas emissions.