What "City?" : Inventories & Targets

Although city-dwellers have an intuitive idea of what "The City" is, when it comes to climate change policy things are not so simple. Even at the level of greenhouse gas inventories "municipal" can mean different things. In the case of corporate municipal strategies (like Calgary's) "the city" stops at the limits of what is under the direct control of the municipal government and its departments (municipal buildings, fleet, infrastructure, waste management etc). In other cases, the case of community inventories and targets (as in Portland), "the city" is what most of us would intutitively think guess; it includes both government emissions as well as those of citizens, businesses and industry. Obviously, it is easier to set targets at a corporate level, but any real impact will only come with community wide reductions. Calgary's corporate emissions, for example, make up about 3% of total municipal greenhouse gases.

But even community wide targets can leave a lot out. Airports and Ports, both sources of significant emissions, are almost always left out of both emissions inventories and reduction targets. And then there are all the ressources that cities consume. Goods from hightech products, to food, to concrete and steel have a heavy footprint; but the emissions associated with them rarely if ever make it into municipal climate change policies. They are an undeniable part of the actual city -- the cities we live in -- but not of the way our environmental policies approache the city.

So what do we do? Knowledge is, to a certain extent, valuable for its own sake. Internalizing more of these emissions into our inventories would provide an increasingly accurate picture of the urban impact on the environment. Even if, for a variety of reasons, it might not be possible to set reductions targets for all these sectors. But there is something at play here that goes beyond bean-counting. Cities have a key position in regional, national and global economies. Through economic development planning they have the opportunity to contribute something significant to a broader shift in the path that we are on. Engaging at that level would allow us to move from making marginal gains in an otherwise inefficient system, to a redefinition of both our cities and our economies in terms which could fundamentally re-adjust the balance between our society and nature.

Imagined in the short term that seems sensational. But isolated action by individual cities over a four or five year political term won't get us there. So, on one hand then this is an argument for the importance of linked municipal efforts to do long-term development planning that places environmental sustainability and human well-being on par with economic growth. More generally though, and perhapse more realistically, this is an argument to be aware and critical of the limits of the climate change policies we put in place. Because they don't just deal with GHG emissions -- they define what the city is, where is starts and where is stops -- not just in terms of boundaries on a map, but also in terms of its broader relationships. Compared with the cities we know and live in, the cities defined by our policies will often appear shrunken. Like the one wool sock that accidentally made it into the dryer. The difference between those two is a space where we haven't gone yet, and it is also a reminder for us to ask "why not?"


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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