Image: Meiying Ng

The carbon footprint of cities in developed countries can be up to 60 per cent greater when consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions are taken into account.

A recent IPCC/C40 Cities conference addressed this discovery and ways to tackleit. The conference was held in March and was hosted by C40 Cities in Edmonton, Canada. It saw over 750 delegates from more than 75 countries gather, and involved the scientific community, delegations of young people and urban practitioners coming together to talk about ways to tackle the issues.

As a result, upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports will feature cities with a much stronger focus than before, IPCC’s Diana Ürge-Vorsatz said at the end.

According to the latest report from the IPCC: “The next two decades present a window of opportunity for mitigation and adaptation in urban areas, as a large portion of the world’s urban areas will be developed during this period.”

The conference was called partly because the report found carbon footprint of some of the world’s biggest cities were 60 per cent larger than previously estimated, when all the products and services a city consumes are included. 

Cities are now known to be responsible for some 75 per cent of global CO2 emissions, with transport and buildings being among the largest contributors.

The report’s author, Michael Doust, program director for C40 Cities, told the conference: “We’re missing the other side of the coin if we only measure emissions involved in the production of food, energy or other products and services. Knowing what the consumption emissions are, and where, allows cities and residents to make better decisions on how to reduce their carbon emissions.”

London, Paris, New York, Toronto, Sydney and other wealthy cities that no longer have large industrial sectors have significantly reduced their local emissions. But their actual emissions have risen substantially, with citizens’ personal carbon footprints larger than most people’s in the world because of high consumption levels.

This imports carbon emissions from regions of the world where labour is cheaper and energy is much more likely to come from fossil fuel power stations.

Reducing the carbon footprint of consumption in cities

What can be done to reduce the high levels of consumption and therefore carbon emissions caused by the spending power of the wealthy on imported goods?

The Global Protocol for Community-Scale GHG Emission Inventoriesis a tool for helping cities measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions in a consistent way. This covers the following sectors: buildings, transportation, waste, industrial processes and product use, agriculture, forestry and other land use. But it doesn’t cover personal consumption because it is not within the power of municipal authorities to influence directly.

Only a consumption-based approach can capture direct and lifecycle emissions of goods and services (including those from raw materials, manufacture, distribution, retail and disposal). This would allocate greenhouse gas emissions to the final consumers of those goods and services, rather than to the original producers of those GHG emissions.

This uses the standard PAS 2070: Specification for the assessment of greenhouse gas emissions of a city. The data used for the assessment comes from “environmentally extended input-output modelling”.

This model analyses spending from households, government and business based on financial flow data from national and regional economic accounts. It then estimates greenhouse gas emissions using average emission factors for each consumption category depending on the country of origin of the goods and services consumed.

The diagram below shows the relationship between the two types of emissions. Cities have to add up all three numbers to get total greenhouse gas emissions.

Sixty-three of the 79 cities studied were consumer cities and had consumption-based emissions greater than sector-based emissions. For the remaining 16, the reverse was true. These were producer cities mostly situated in South and West Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Cities in Oceania have the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions (10-25 tonnes CO2-e per person). They also have the second-highest emissions related to meet consumption (with cities in Latin America perhaps surprisingly having the highest), and the second-highest for an electronic equipment, behind North America.

To find out how to minimise these types of emissions, consumer cities would need to obtain more information about the lifecycle impacts of the important products and services.

Only two things can be done at policy level apart from awareness-raising. The first is attention to reducing inequality, which is one of the Sustainable Development Goals, which would spread wealth more equally throughout the population.

The second is a greater focus on the sustainability of consumed goods by both favouring sustainably-produced imported goods, and purchasing goods that are produced locally under more sustainable conditions, thereby also reducing the carbon footprint associated with transport of the goods.

Perhaps there could also be much higher taxation on luxury goods with the proceeds directed towards climate change mitigation and adaptation (but that is hardly going to get to politicians elected). 

New alliances

The conference also discussed ways of tackling carbon emissions at infrastructure and service provision scale through the creation of new types of alliances and partnerships, and, unusually, addressed the role of informal settlements and smaller cities. The new alliances and partnerships will explore climate actions that address poverty and inequality, reshaping power relations and democracy in cities, and reconceptualising visions of what cities are, could be and should be.

New York City, for example, is divesting $5 billion in city investments from fossil fuels, retrofitting buildings to make them greener, electrifying its city vehicle fleet, planting thousands of trees and covering rooftops with solar panels.

Large-scale reforestation projects taking place in Durban, South Africa, are restoring local biodiversity, helping to adapt the city to climate change by, for example, reducing temperatures and improving air quality, and creating jobs. They also represent research partnerships between local government and local academia.

The City of Edmontonis turning its former municipal airport into a carbon-neutral community called Blatchford, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by retrofitting community association buildings and installing photovoltaic energy systems.

Small German cities like Muensterand Eschweiler, with populations of around 55,000, are doing their bit by adopting strategiesto align their municipal agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals, which includes goals for cities, energy and climate change.

Back in New York City a similar thing is happening. Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week: “New York City is showing how localities across the country can implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Our approach is working: our air and waterways are cleaner than ever, we’re creating opportunity for New Yorkers across the city, crime is at an all-time low and we are tackling the challenge of climate change. We look forward to continuing working with municipalities across the nation and the world to learn from them and share the strategies that have succeeded here.”

Financing the work

But, as always, the question of how to pay for all these activities is being urgently asked.

At the end of April, the third United Nations Economic And Social Council Forum on Financing for Development included a specific section on subnational finance. The Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments was there specifically to underline the vital importance of local governments participating in the discussion.

One of the recommendations of the conference for city administrations was to strive to strengthen revenue collection and accountability mechanisms as well as public service delivery.

But Parks Tau, who is president of United Cities and Local Governments, commented that before this happens there must be fiscal governance reforms “to allow local governments to mobilise a more diverse set of development finance options and be more strategically included in domestic resource mobilisation strategies”, that is, be able to have a say at national and international levels.

He criticised the omission of the needs of urban areas for achieving the SDGs in the Global Taskforce Statement, which contained the conference’s conclusions.

Unless cities are able to receive and allocate more finance for work to tackle climate change and the SDGs, the world cannot move in a more sustainable direction.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, about living within planetary boundaries, Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and EnergyManagement in Buildings and in Industry.