"Blaming Cities" or "Walking the Walk"?
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.