People walking on High Line in New York City
Thousands of pedestrians cross the High Line each day, a greenway created through New York City along part of the former railroad. (Photo by Jorge Fajl/National Geographic)

Topics: Science | Society

Carbon heats the world and cities are fighting back with big plans

While national leadership across the planet flags, cities are stepping up with bold visions and steep carbon reductions


Once teeming with garbage, diesel transports and tenements burning low-grade “dirty” oil, New York City has undergone a contemporary restyling. To start with, thousands of pedestrians each day traverse the aerial oasis known as the High Line, a 1.6-kilometre section of the former New York Central Railroad above the lower west side of Manhattan. The stretch of greenway, lined with wildflowers and other plant life, bends through aging architecture before giving way to views of a midtown skyline and the Hudson River.

In recent years, New York City has also set a 30 percent carbon reduction goal and adopted the revolutionary PlaNYC, which will “promote solar and wind development within the five boroughs, expand the city’s hybrid taxi fleet and drastically reduce private vehicle use through tolls and reducing traffic lanes.” In the summer of 2009, the city announced the Empire State Building would reduce its energy use by 38 percent by 2013 — a retrofitting model for skyscrapers around the world. Cities are “innovative and nimble,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed to the press in May 2011. “[They] can often move quickly and boldly in implementing environmentally and financially viable solutions.”

Often regarded as ghastly imaginings of concrete and steel, megacities have emerged from the 20th century to become brighter and conspicuously greener. As part of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group — which Bloomberg now chairs — they are providing stewardship on the environment where none has existed before and stepping up where global protocols and treaties have failed.

Created in 2005 by then London mayor Ken Livingstone, C40 is a network of 58 global cities representing nearly 10 percent of the world’s population. They say they’re committed to implementing “meaningful and sustainable” climate-related actions, such as energy efficiency in buildings, mass and non-motorized transit and advanced waste management. In 2006, the organization partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative, an agency founded by former U.S. president Bill Clinton. “The collective effort is significant,” says C40 spokesperson Michael Marinello. Climate change specialist Ian Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation agrees. “Quite simply, the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change will be won or lost in cities.”

And there is much to lose. The International Energy Agency showed global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 to be the highest in history. Its data put the world on the trajectory toward at least three degrees of warming by the end of the century, and possibly as much as four degrees.

Yet there’s a phrase heard time and time again in any discussion of global climate policy: lack of national leadership. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted 15 years ago by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, committed industrialized nations to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels. As of September 2011, 191 states had signed on to the protocol, but an all-important United States refused to ratify it. Following the failed climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, last December, Canada made an environmental about-face, formally withdrawing from Kyoto altogether. Environment Minister Peter Kent pointed out to the press that meeting Canada’s target would have been the equivalent of “removing every car, truck, ATV, tractor, ambulance, police car and vehicle of every kind from Canadian roads.”

The lack of an international consensus on climate change has placed more pressure on cities to act. After all, more than 50 percent of the world’s population today lives in cities, according to UN statistics. By 2050, this figure will rise to three-quarters. As the primary centres of economic activity globally, cities consume most of the planet’s energy and account for nearly three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, C40 says. Cities are also the most vulnerable to climate change: 75 percent of urban settlements lie in coastal areas at risk of flooding and incremental sea-level rise. When Jakarta was deluged by floods in 2007, it cost the country US$879 million and resulted in more than 200,000 refugees. In Rio de Janeiro, intense rainfall in 2010 destroyed infrastructure and spread disease throughout flooded areas. New Orleans, which is still dealing with the effects of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, will also lose significant areas to sea-level rises should climate change continue at its current rate, experts agree.

For many cities, becoming greener means making amends for past sins. As former Toronto mayor and previous C40 chair David Miller explains, “In North America alone, we made a lot of mistakes post-World War II and, particularly, in the 1960s, when we allowed urban planning and transportation to be thought of separately. And we ended up with cities that are built on sprawl models. Toronto was one of them.”

Currently, Toronto is the only Canadian member of C40. When he was in office between 2003 and 2010, Miller unveiled a plan to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020, and by 80 percent in 2050. He also introduced a multi-million-dollar “clean and beautiful” city initiative, calling on Torontonians to pick up their garbage at home and in neglected public spaces.

“Individual cities can be a very powerful catalyst,” says Miller, who remains an adviser on urban and environmental issues to C40. “There is a broad appetite for local governments to act; they are neither paralyzed by their need to get international consensus or hamstrung to a need for near unanimity. And what happens in these major cities can quickly spread to small and medium-sized ones.”

What was once a top-down approach to climate change has become a grassroots or “bottom-up” one, beginning with mayors, councillors and local entrepreneurs, says Ian Bruce. Cities have a real capacity — and the will — to
create solutions and build greener economies, he insists.

According to C40, member cities have collectively taken more than 4,700 climate change actions, while 57 percent have adopted city-wide greenhouse gas reduction targets. London, for example, aims to place 100,000 electric vehicles on its streets before 2020. To improve fuel efficiency, Buenos Aires is building a network of dedicated bus and taxi lanes. Meanwhile, Seoul plans to retrofit 10,000 buildings by 2030. At the same time, a growing number of cities provide recognition and rewards to individuals or departments that meet greenhouse gas goals. Rio de Janeiro, for one, doles out bonuses to public workers who achieve their emission reduction targets.

Of course, cities cannot go it alone forever. What’s being missed is the major role central and federal governments still need to play, argues John Bennett, the executive director of Sierra Club Canada, a grassroots environmental organization. “It’s really unfortunate that we have to depend on property taxpayers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when simple solutions can be adopted by national governments, making it simpler and more efficient for cities to do their part,” he says. “Without substantial changes to building codes and industrial standards, which are traditionally a regional responsibility, cities will continue to be hampered.”

Miller takes a more optimistic view. Because cities have the clout to do something about climate change, they also have the moral obligation, he says. “Given that national governments have failed us, then the onus has to be on municipalities. And the good news is that cities have been preparing to lead the way on this issue for several years and are ready to assume that privilege.”

Rusty freight tracks and other remnants of a begrimed railroad era are still visible among the grass, trees and flowers along New York City’s High Line. Still, the promenade in the sky — running south from the Penn Station rail yards to the Meatpacking District — serves as an emblem for millions of environmentally conscious New Yorkers. It’s also a tangible example of how cities around the world are bridging their industrial pasts with a greener future.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s July/August 2012 issue with the title Global crisis, urban answers.”

Kevin Spurgaitis is a journalist in Toronto.


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