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.
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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.

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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.

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