Hubs of commerce and culture. Seats of geopolitical power. Throughout history they’ve been pulling country folk to seek their fortunes with these massive magical concrete magnets.

In pre-industrial times, cities were still the cores of political power and the economy, but less so. More people lived and worked in the surrounding countryside. That trend has been steadily reversing since industrialization, with more and more of the global population flowing into the urban centres of the world. There’s no question that cities are important.  Today, cities have a new stage on which to flaunt their power: the fight against climate change. This post is all about why climate action in cities will be where the global fight against climate change is won or lost. Cities will determine our collective future.

Just a quick side note: while underlining the importance and power of cities, I don’t want to make it seem like rural areas are not important. Just under half the world’s population still lives in rural areas, the countryside still provides almost all the food and natural resources that make life possible, and of course geographically, rural areas account for the majority of the planet. The rural is where most of the world’s animals live and is made up of all the beautiful and vital habitats that we rely on for so called ‘ecosystem services’ – things natural habitats do that we need, such as powering the water cycle, cleaning the air and making soil. If you happen to live in the country, no one is saying your part of the world isn’t important any more. Okay?

Now, with that out the way…

1. Most people live and work in cities – and that’s increasing

A steady trend of urbanisation has been going on for all of human history, which is now accelerating. In 2009 we passed an important milestone, when over half the world’s people lived in cities and towns for the first time. Now it’s 54%, and the urbanisation is happening quickest in Asia and Africa (while richer countries already went through this phase and are now pretty steady). The UN expects almost 70% of the population to be urban by 2050. That’s a major infrastructure challenge in itself. People tend to move to the city searching for work and a better standard of living. Yet fast urbanisation without proper planning leads to slums and all kind of issues like overcrowding, pollution, increased sickness and crime.

As most businesses are based in cities, they are of course the commercial hubs of the world, accounting for the vast majority of the world’s economic activity. Just the 600 wealthiest cities accounts for 60% of GDP today. That’s likely to remain, but the composition of the 600 will shift, with many Chinese cities joining the club over the next few years.

2. Cities use the most energy and resources, and produce the most waste

As they have the most people and economic activity, it stands to reason cities would also have the biggest environmental impact. Their ‘ecological footprints’ – the area of productive land needed to produce their resources and absorb their waste – are huge. Like a mega-organism, they ‘consume’ vast quantities of food, water, resources, energy and products, and expel huge quantities of rubbish, dirty water and pollution. It’s a linear, unsustainable model.

How carbon-heavy cities are varies massively around the world. What’s not so obvious is how much cities can diverge from their home countries. For example, emissions are higher per person in London than in New York City, even though the UK emissions per person are way smaller than the USA. This blog post has a clear representation of the carbon emissions in several major cities. Just use it as a rough guide though – it’s based on population x emissions, but the emissions are from self-reported data between 2005 and 2010 which probably doesn’t include embedded emissions (more on that in another post).

3. Cities are particularly vulnerable to climate change

So where does climate change come in? It’s already in the picture, since climate change is affecting people and the economy, both of which are cantered in cities, and climate change is affected by carbon emissions, which are also cantered in cities.

But there’s an even more direct link. Cities are very vulnerable to climate change because so many of them are on the coast or a big river. This means rising sea levels threaten to flood them. Major cities such as New York, Mumbai and Shanghai are particularly at risk. In most cases the water can be kept out with barriers, but they are hugely expensive and that is public money that could be spent on education, health or other infrastructure. London’s Thames Barrier will need to be upgraded to keep out storm surges from the river as climate change leads to sea level rise and more extreme weather.

4. The city is the perfect scale for catalysing change

We need action at every scale to successfully address climate change: from the global to the personal, and everything in between. But smaller or bigger scales are more difficult. Working at the level of the household can sometimes feel insignificant, like a tiny drop in the ocean. Some people find it hard to get motivated about change at such a small scale. On the other hand, action at the national level is certainly significant but it’s intimidating. States are big and slow and full of bureaucracy. It’s hard for one person to have an impact, or to feel like they can. And yet cities sit in the middle as the Goldilocks scale. They are big enough to matter and small enough to change. Also, city mayors are often more respondent to local needs, including climate adaptation, than national politicians, because they’re closer to the grassroots.

It may be simple, but I actually think this is the most important point of the 7.

5. National contributions to the Paris Agreement aren’t enough

The historic Paris Agreement which passed into force in 2016 and requires all countries to work together to keep global warming under 2 degrees, will only be successful if cities step up to the plate.

All the national action plans submitted so far add up to limiting climate change to around 2.7 degrees – and that’s if they’re followed to the letter with no backsliding. The 0.7 gap is expected to be filled by “non-state actors” which is weird policy speak for cities and big business. To this end, cities have taken an unprecedented central place in the big global sustainability agreements of the last two years, being specifically highlighted in the Paris Agreement and also the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. (If you have no clue what those are, you’re not alone. They’re not very well communicated to the public. I’ll be discussing them both in later posts).

6. National government leadership is unreliable

It also makes sense for activists and climate campaigners to focus on creating change at the city scale because national governments are so unreliable on this issue.

We do need their support, but sadly we can’t rely on getting it. In America, Trump is desperate to undo years of climate progress, and is already starting to dismantle Obama’s climate policies. In the UK, it’s not politically correct to admit climate denial, but the Tories just pay it lip service while ignoring the issue and favouring fracking over renewables.

National governments are very partisan, with each new administration making dramatic policy U-turns, which is not good for environmental policies, which are longer term by their very nature. Certainly longer than a government term of 4 or 5 years. To clarify: we definitely do need national policy, but it’s unstable. Cities on the other hand, are less dramatically partisan and so more stable partners in the climate battle.

7. Climate action in cities is already leading the way

And the other good news is that cities are already leading the way. American, European and Asian cities are all speeding ahead of their respective countries. Copenhagen is totally bossing the transition, with an action plan to go fully carbon neutral as early as 2025. American cities and states, including New York, California, San Diego and LA, have proclaimed their plans to continue with bold climate action in open defiance of Trump’s Big Coal agenda. China is planning to start building ‘forest cities’ where skyscrapers are blanketed with trees, shrubs and plants in order to clean up air pollution and absorb carbon. Paris has passed legislation, backed by the mayor, to encourage anyone to plant urban gardens throughout the city.

And in our digitally connected age, cities have an unprecedented opportunity to connect and collaborate. Networks are springing up, such as the C40 cities initiative, a network of 90 cities accounting for 25% of global GDP and 1 in 12 people, which are committed to going zero-carbon in line with the Paris Agreement. Similarly, the Compact of Mayors, supported by the UN, is for climate leader mayors of an ever growing list of cities to convene and help each other respond to climate change.


In conclusion I’d like to draw your attention to the final episode of Planet Earth 2, the Attenborough nature documentary series so exquisitely produced that some refer to it as “Earth porn”.

The final was my favourite episode, because it made me think and gave me hope.

Each episode had featured a major habitat or biome, like deserts, rainforests, mountains. The final one was on the “newest habitat on Earth” – cities. I thought it was a beautiful and thought-provoking idea to describe cities as habitats. The episode showed how full of natural life our cities already are, and ended on an even more exciting note: how biodiverse they could be if we redesigned them to be eco cities. Imagine what they’d be like if every building had roofs and walls alive with plants and wildlife.

China is planning its first Forest City for early 2018. Perhaps we should all be taking a leaf from their book, and adding more leaves to our concrete jungles.

What do you think is the most important thing about cities from a climate perspective? Have you been involved in any community climate action, or would you like to? Let me know in the comments.

Originally published on The Climate Lemon
Lead image of Hong Kong smog by Tokyoahead at English Wikipedia GFDL) or CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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