How Cities Can Help Save the Planet

This morning’s proceedings at the New

York Climate Summit were a good way to start the day: full of hope and optimism.

Rather than getting frustrated at the seeming inability of the world’s national

governments to do anything about climate change, the assembled mayors and other

municipal officials seemed convinced that, collectively, they were willing and

able to take on a large part of the challenge themselves.

New York’s Dan Doctoroff kicked it off, explaining how his


started by looking how to solve problems related to energy usage, congestion,

transportation, livable streets, and generally the ability of the city to survive

an expected influx of 1 million new inhabitants. It turned out, he said, that

nearly all of the ways to address these issues — and save money at the same

time — involved "going green".

London’s Ken Livingstone then said that cities produce 3/4

of global carbon emissions, which means that cities can and should take the

lead in terms of tackling climate change issues. "It is in cities that

the battle to tackle climate change will be won or lost," he said, calling

for a democracy in terms of carbon emissions: those who emit too much now must

drastically reduce their emissions, while developing cities with much lower

per-capita emissions "should plan for stabilizing their emissions in the


Interestingly, municipal governments don’t only seem to be well ahead of federal

governments on this issue; they’re also playing a crucial role in encouraging

the businesses and residents of their cities to get up to speed as well. Richard

Daley of Chicago knows that developers and unions are not exactly famous

for being green; he said that he’s now implemented a system whereby they can

get their construction permits much more easily if they’re constructing green


David Miller of Toronto was a fount of statistics: Greenhouse

gas emissions attributable to the municipal government have been reduced by

40% since 1990, he said, largely thanks to a profitable initiative which captures

methane from landfills. He also said that if 20% of the buildings in Toronto

which could have green roofs actually had them, then summertime temperatures

in the city would be reduced by 2%.

That’s not the only way to reduce energy consumption, either. Everywhere else

in the province of Ontario, summer electricity consumption went up last year;

in Toronto it went down, thanks to a plan whereby if you reduced your consumption

by 10%, then you’d get a 10% discount on your next electricity bill.

The cities can’t do everything. George David, the CEO of UTC,

noted that only 9 of the 50 US states have legislation which facilitates net

metering. (That’s the system whereby your electricity meter can run backwards

if you put electricity back into the grid.) Some involvement from the state

and federal level is definitely necessary. But the general feeling was that

all the cities were asking was that the state and federal politicians simply

get out of the way, and let them do their thing.

Right now, we’re at the easy bit of reducing our carbon footprints: the point

at which doing so can actually make money. I look forward to a future where

living in a green city is a point of pride for all city dwellers, rather than

just ones in places like Germany and Toronto. Right now, the New York mindset

isn’t particularly green. But all that means is that it’s easier for New York

to reduce its carbon emissions than for European cities — which start from

a much lower level — to reduce theirs. Today’s a day for optimism.

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