Cities and Climate Change

December 2020

This is the second in a series of Infrastructure Ideas articles on Infrastructure and Politics, following last month’s earlier review of Infrastructure and the US Election

The past four years have been largely disappointing in many areas of infrastructure.  Among others, after much hype, the trillion-dollar infrastructure plan for the US never materialized, with the same fate befalling the “billions to trillions” campaign for infrastructure in Emerging Markets.  Two infrastructure-related areas where the past four years have nevertheless seen progress have been in municipal infrastructure, and in climate-friendly energy technologies.  Mayors in the US – and in many parts of the world – have been increasingly stepping up to address infrastructure needs left untouched by central authorities (see “what did all those infrastructure weeks add up to?” in Bloomberg CityLab).  Meanwhile renewable energy technologies have continued to drive down the price of zero-emission electricity generation, well-below that of fossil-fuel alternatives, and energy storage technologies have begun to emerge.  In this article, we’ll take a look at the combination of these two positive trends and see how cities are doing on climate change.

With the Trump administration in the US walking back previous national commitments to reduce emissions and fight climate change, many US cities stepped into the void with their action pledges.  Michael Bloomberg’s and Jerry Brown’s “We are Still In” coalition was one of many that took steps to counter the administration’s roll-back efforts.  For example, today 1 in 3 people in the US live in a city or state jurisdiction which has committed to 100% clean energy.

A recent in-depth data analysis by the Brookings Institute noted that over 600 local governments in the US have developed climate action plans that include greenhouse gas inventories and reduction targets.  This reflects the depth of public concern about the consequences of a warmer planet among urban populations – and the lack of similar concern in the rural areas which have formed the political support for the Republicans in the US.  Brookings’ analysis, focused on the 100 largest cities in the United States, with the following key findings:

  • Slightly less than half of large US cities have established GHG reduction targets. Where the goals exist, they are aligned with the IPCC 2- degree target, but tend to fall short of the pathways that would limit warming to 1.5 degrees.  These cities account for 12% of the total US population.  An additional 22 cities have committed to reducing GHG emissions but have not yet established specific emission reduction targets or completed a baseline emission inventory upon which to base a reduction plan. Most targets remain non-binding.  Of the 45 cities with plans, 17 have implemented new or updated plans since the Trump administration took office in January 2017.
  • Collectively, the total annual reduction in emissions achieved by the 45 cities with both targets and inventories would equate to approximately 365 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent, 6% of total US emissions, or the equivalent of removing about 79 million passenger vehicles from the road, and roughly 7% of the emission reductions to which the U.S. originally committed to achieve by year 2050 in relation to the Paris Agreement.
  • In practice, and despite genuine achievements in many cities, roughly 2/3 of cities are currently lagging their targeted emission levels.  Some 13 cities do not appear to have any publicly available GHG inventories for the years subsequent to the establishment of their climate action plan. Based on their most recent GHG inventory data, 26 of the 32 cities that had at least one additional inventory since 2010 experienced a decrease in emissions compared to their baseline emission levels, while six cities experienced an increase. Los Angeles, California has experienced the largest decrease in emissions (about 47% below 1990 baseline levels), while Tucson, Arizona has experienced the largest increase in emissions amid sprawling growth (39% above 1990 baseline levels), followed by fast-growing Madison, Wisconsin.  On average, the cities analyzed in this study will still need to reduce their annual emissions by 64% by 2050 in order to reach their ultimate GHG reduction targets.

The early November elections also signaled support for further action by voters in a number of cities.  “Community choice” energy programs, which enable municipal governments, rather than utilities, to decide where local power should be sourced and therefore accelerate shifts to “green energy”, were approved in a number of cities, including Columbus, Ohio, and East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Of course, climate-aware cities acting on their own can’t stop climate change.  Efforts have to go beyond the pioneers, and more than half of the US’s largest cities lack serious climate plans, and many of the plans that do exist lack viable agendas for implementation. Change, in any area, requires diligent review and assessment to learn what really works.  Networks such as the C-40, or the Climate Neutral Cities Alliance, are helpful in trying to stimulate this learning across more cities, but these so far have tended to help early adopters learn more from each other, rather than stimulate more cities to act.  One analysis in Nature Climate Change showed that existing climate studies under-represent the challenges of small cities of fewer than 300,000 people, where 40% of urban dwellers live in OECD countries, and those of the fast-growing cities in the global South.  The study found that Africa, the region with the fastest growing cities, is the least well-represented in the urban case study literature, and that small Asian cities are projected to have the largest share of the global urban population by 2030, yet are also poorly studied.  Such “mapping” of the gaps of where cities are putting in place climate change plans, and the gaps in information available for different segments of cities, is a useful step forward.

There is a long way to go, and a lot of damage has been done at the federal level in the past four years.  Likely Republican retention of the control of the US Senate, pending the two January run-off elections in the state of Georgia, will dampen the new Biden administration’s efforts to take much more aggressive on climate mitigation, though pressure on vehicle efficiencies and emissions is likely to be enacted, and to make a big difference.  States and cities will still continue to play a disproportionate role in reducing US emissions.  While many of the cities whose actions will have an impact are located in the “red states” whose leaders continue to ignore climate change, the cities themselves have different voting patterns and preferences than the states they are in.  Hope on US emissions reductions is still best placed in cities and mayors: expect to see them getting much more support from the federal level going forward, and expect fireworks where “red state” governors try to block the ability of cities in their states to enact climate change plans.

Previous Infrastructure Ideas Posts on the theme of Infrastructure and Politics:

Infrastructure and the US Election  — November 2020

Walking Away from PPAs: Spain Revisited  — February 2020

Blue Coal ?  — October 2019

And Many More Strikes to Come  — May 2019

Populism Still Trumps Infrastructure SolutionsFebruary 2019

Infrastructure WeakMay 2018

Infrastructure Meets PoliticsApril 2018

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