80%? part.II: Arguing for Inclusive Inventories

David Satterthwaite's full report on Cities' Contribution to Global Warming is now out and as I guessed last week, the debate centers around where you draw the boundaries of “the city” and assign responsibility for pollution. If we are talking specifically about emissions physically produced within cities and metropolitan regions, the report estimates that their contribution is closer 40% than 80%.

But is that fair? Another way to count would be (in the fashion of an eco-footprint analysis) to also hold them accountable for the emissions generated while producing the resources that they consume. Everything from electricity that we use to the consumer goods that churn through our shopping malls have to be made somewhere, and usually not in or cities. Include that, and Satterthwaite estimates that cities are back up near 60% to 70% of global emissions.  Not bad.

"Blaming Cities" or "Walking the Walk"?
Satterthwaite argues that past over-estimates “blaming cities for greenhouse gas emissions” distracts us from the role that they have to play in finding a solution. I disagree. The 80% figure became popular precisely because it was sensational enough to be used by municipal leaders to spark debate and push for action. But he is right to be critical about how inventories are used: our inventories and our policies have to operate at the same level. You can't design narrow policies and pretend that they will have broad impacts. "If you are going to talk the talk, then you better be ready to...." you know the rest.

If organizations like the C40 are going to embrace a broad vision of municipal responsibility in their press releases, then policies have to have to operate at that same level.  That means making sure technological and managerial solutions act aggressively to get the big ticket items (like transit and land use planning, building efficiency, and local renewable energy) right. But it also means acknowledging that they are only a part of the picture. We also need to engage with cities as places that steer and encourage a culture of wasteful consumption. That's a bit trickier.

Satterthwaite's report emphasizes something that we all already intuitively know: that the force behind most anthropogenic carbon emissions is “the consumption patterns of middle- and upper-income groups, regardless of where they live and the production systems that profit from their consumption.” That is a cultural problem and a problem of how we act collectively, as much as one for technology or environmental policy.

Splitting Consumption and Quality of Life
Given that, cities (particularly wealthy western cities) are a privileged place to start dealing with GHG emissions. Not just because they offer opportunities to increase basic efficiency (the target of most of the policies in place so far). But because they also group together high-intensity consumers in a setting that offers multiple opportunities to begin de-linking quality of life and resource use.

Arts, culture, sports, festivals and spontaneous gatherings that nurture public creativity rather than consumption -- and the safe and vibrant public spaces needed to support them -- all of these are all also relevant to climate change.

The Argument for Inclusive Inventories
So how to assign responsibility? By the location where the emissions are produced? By the site of final consumption? Why not according to the opportunities that a place offers for intervention?

I would argue against low-balling cities implication for climate change. While it may be difficult to clearly divide emissions between producers and consumers, one thing is certain: city's offer amazing opportunities to create change, change that is both technological and cultural. Change that has as much to do with how a city is designed, as with how it is governed and lived.

If we are going to unhook quality of life and wellbeing from high patterns of resource consumption, we are going to do it in cities. So let's keep our estimates on the high side, and use those numbers to engage with the full reach of what cities can accomplish.
UPDATE: For those who would like to read the report (but without subscriptions to Environment and Urbanization) send an e-mail to alex.aylett (at) gmail.com and I'll pass it on to you.

80% ?

It's been on the lips of mayors from New York to Sydney and quoted in numerous reports: cities are responsible for 80% of ghg emissions. I haven't managed to track that figure back to a reliable study, and now it seems like better minds than mine have taken a closer look. A new report in the journal Environment and Urbanization is claiming that the figure is closer to 40%. The details are still unclear: I haven't been able to get a copy of the report yet, and because the journal is predominantly focused on Africa the story hasn't had any coverage in the western media.

That said, I am guessing that the discrepancy comes from where you draw the boundaries of responsibility. I've talked a bit about that before in terms of inventories and targets. It's important to remember that inventories are as much political as scientific; how to count has to be based on a solid methodology, but what you count (and where you stop counting) often has to do with political decisions both good and bad. The interconnectedness of our economic and environmental systems means that disagreements over boundary drawing are inevitable. Interestingly, the new report points the finger at the 80% figure for blocking effective urban climate change action. On the flip side mayors, particularly those in the C40, have used exactly that figure as a tool to push for stronger action.

Expect a follow-up once I have a copy of the report.  See part II here. Read more...

Rankings with Teeth: Livable or Liability?

New rankings of urban sustainability seem come out almost every week. The SustainLane rankings are one of the best established and best regarded though, and their 2008 assessment of America's 50 biggest cities (released Monday) is attracting a fair amount of attention (here, here, here and here). Everyone likes a good fight and this year Portland came out on top again, with Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and Mesa, Arizona trailing the pack. The ranking covers indicators from transit and green economic development to energy policies and air/water quality. Portland scored its third consecutive win thanks to high scores in Energy and Climate Policy, Green buildings and Planning and Landuse (see graphic for full breakdown).

There is a new edge to this years rankings though. In the past they have stopped at celebrating success and inspiring some friendly competition. This time James Elsen of the SustainLane foundation is drawing some more serious conclusions:

"We're beginning to see the top and bottom-ranked cities move farther apart, with the cities taking sustainability seriously increasing in desirability nationwide and enjoying better odds of long-term economic prosperity. ... Specifically, the top 15 cities are creating more vibrant city centers and offer higher quality air, water, food and transportation choices ... We predict that the lower-ranking cities will increasingly struggle to sustain their resident and business populations and local economies."

Elsen's comments about vibrant city life are a green echo Richard Florida's now familiar arguments about the social and cultural characteristics needed to attract the “creative class.” But they open into another issue that, just like Florida's arguments, is changing how we think about cities -- changing it in a way that re-establishes the importance of well designed infrastructure for long-term prosperity. For municipalities (and regions and countries) poor environmental performance is becoming a liability.

A carbon intensive economy vulnerable to tariffs, taxes, and fuel price hikes; a city infrastructure poorly prepared for a more violent climate; a sprawling un-walkable metropolis with poor transit – all these things (carbon intensity, environmental risk and exposure, and livability) are more and more coming together to class a city as either an environmental liability or an oasis/safe-harbour for both residents and investment. These issues are partly about culture and lifestyle, but they are also about the shape of our cities and the design of their infrastructure. Dealing with them in any real coherent way is going to mean real work and will rub some stains and grit into the shiny green luster that often covers environmental politics.


Access to Information II : CarbonTax Improves GDP

It's been a busy week with not much time to write - but the recent discussion of yet another report (the 4th so far) silently shelved by the Conservative government has gotten me in the saddle again. A report commissioned in 2007 by the Harper government has shown that carbon taxes benefit both the environment and the economy (exec. summary, full report. Prepared by the consulting firm headed eminent environmental economist Mark Jaccard, the report directly contradicts the Conservative's recent claims that a carbon tax would have apocalyptic effects on both the economy and national unity. Green Party leader Elizabeth May quickly jumped in at the end of last week and re-released the report saying:

“Mr. Harper’s ridiculous claim that taxing carbon will bring about economic ruin and a recession is starkly contradicted by his own research. In fact, this report shows a positive impact on GDP beginning in 2015. With this in the public domain it is clear that Mr. Harper is deliberately distorting the evidence. Mr. Harper’s fear mongering on a carbon tax is a deliberate and premeditated effort to demonize a sensible plan."

The Green Party also drew attention to the report after obtaining it through access to information provisions shortly after its release in 2007. Their re-release is a timely reminder of the Conservative government's practice of covering over reports that it dislikes. As I said the first time I covered this theme, this is no time to be wasting good research. We have got huge challenges ahead, but one of the biggest challenges at the moment is uncertainty, uncertainty about what policies to put in place. Sweeping valuable research under the carpet is totally irresponsible and just plain stupid. So far coverage has been limited to the blogsphere but hopefully the mainstream will pick it up this week (see here, here, here and here)

Port Electrification: Vancouver

International shipping exists in the Bermuda triangle of climate change initiatives: it's nowhere in the Kyoto protocol and similarly absent from municipal initiatives: I don't know of any municipality that has included ports in it's Climate Change action plans. Both airports and shipping ports have complicated relationships to the city's that harbour them and are governed by interlocking federal and provincial regulations. Both are also significant contributors to local air pollution and to an area's CO2 emissions. For shipping, it's not just the coming and going that causes problems; ships in most ports also have to keep their engines running even while docked to generate electricity for on board lights and systems.

With an election on the way, the Metro Vancouver environment and energy committee is hoping to get the federal money it needs to address the issue - at least in part. Marine emissions make up a bit over 5% of the Vancouver region's emissions (as well as being the main source for a variety of air pollutants including NOx, and SOx). Starting with cruise ships, the plan is to provide plug-ins for docked ships supplying them with power either from the BC Hydro grid or from on-site wind and tidal power projects potentially on the horizon. In 2002 Juno, Alaska was the first to set up a shore plug system, but interest has grown internationally and we will likely see more similar projects ahead. The question of course is whether grid-power is any cleaner. In coal burning regions, it won't be. Read more...

West Coast Density: Seattle & Vancouver

Both Seattle (WA) and Vancouver (BC) have plans to make important decisions on density this Fall. In Seattle, city council is preparing to decide how to expand their downtown density-bonus plan, in place for the past two years, to cover the rest of the city. As well as difficult questions about preserving the "human scale" of existing residential neighbourhoods, the main quibble is over the economics of affordable housing. According to the projections they are using, only very large height increases (85ft to 240ft, for example) boost developers profits enough to create an incentive for them to include affordable units. Developers themselves seem to be split on the issue though, with some arguing that the city could demand more affordable units, while others are asking why they should have to meet any affordability requirements at all seeing as their condo towers are already performing a valuable ecological service (adding density).

I've argued before that density has to be coupled with affordability and mixed-use to realize its environmental potential. Developers trying to argue that density is enough miss the fact that lower transportation distance will only arise if a variety of income groups can live and work in the same neighbourhood.

Another question though is whether large developers are the only people we should be turning to to help densify our existing housing stock. Vancouver will be tackling that question, beginning at the end of this month with the first open house on laneway housing in single family areas. Laneway housing (the conversion of garages and coach houses into self-sufficient apartment suits) was a popular item during public consultation for the city's Ecodensity plan. Beyond density, in Vancouver's pricey real estate market allowing homeowners to add rental suits serves a double purpose: it makes home ownership slightly more accessible, and adds a new supply of much needed rental housing to the market.

Whether enough homeowners will add laneway housing (and its close cousin: secondary basement suits) to make any real density difference is uncertain. But the number of illegal suits currently on the market makes it seem likely. While the tall towers proposed for Seattle may make sense in certain areas (near transit hubs for example), Vancouver's engagement with individual homeowners opens up another productive way to retool our current urban form. As with the ReCode Portland program, the question then becomes about how to facilitate densification and green building not just for large new developments but for existing communities as a whole. TreeHugger covers some of the hurdles that these types of construction can face in Canada and links to a short documentary about the experience of two architects working in Toronto.

More Info on Upcoming Vancouver open house on Lane Way Housing:

Date: Sunday, September 21st

      Time: 12 - 4 pm
      Location: Polish Community Centre

4015 Fraser Street (at E. King Edward Ave)

      Date: Wednesday, September 24th
      Time: 4 - 8 pm
      Location: Hellenic Community Centre
      4500 Arbutus Street (at W. 30th Ave)

For more information:
See EcoDensity Initial Actions - Action C-5: http://www.vancouver-ecodensity.ca/content.php?id=42
Call: 604-871-6302


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.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.