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The Metric

Nov 16, 2015

At COP21, the Big Story is Cities

Mayors from Oakland, Santa Monica, and other U.S. cities recognized for their climate leadership as part of the Local Climate Leaders Circle will be in Paris this month to support an international climate agreement. What can cities do to help solve global climate change?
Big blue bus in Santa Monica, California. Photo by George Lumbreras: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lucian400/ (2011).

In Oakland, California, approval of new development projects requires reductions of greenhouse gas pollution. A new rail line will connect the coastal city of Santa Monica, California, with Los Angeles, reducing daily vehicle trips and pollution. Local leadership has earned these cities a place in the international spotlight.

Over 80% of the U.S. population lives in cities, and most global energy is consumed in cities - as a result, cities will be key partners in achieving global emissions reductions. Cities are leading the global conversation, particularly in the U.S., where a national emissions target is still elusive. Through climate action planning, cities are prioritizing ways to reduce GHG emissions in their cities - for instance, through new approaches to urban development, land use, and transportation.

Mayors from Oakland, Santa Monica, and other U.S. cities recognized for their climate leadership as part of the Local Climate Leaders Circle will be in Paris this month to support an international climate agreement at COP21. In advance of the United Nations climate negotiations, I am researching how these 12 U.S. Local Climate Leaders Circle cities are using land use and transportation planning to reduce climate pollution. Mayors will use the platform at COP21 to share lessons learned on the field and encouraging other mayors to follow suit.

Are cities’ climate commitments substantial enough to achieve global climate goals? Targets, strategies, and timelines for reducing emissions vary. A total of 132 U.S. cities have pledged to reduce carbon pollution, which represents the equivalent of taking 165 million cars off the road. Of the 12 cities analyzed in this research, almost half have a maximum target less than a 40% reduction in emissions, but five cities have long-term targets of an 80% reduction (Figure 1).


Figure 1: What can cities do to help solve climate change? Cities have large carbon footprints and are pledging in their climate plans to reduce emissions between 15 and 80% over their baseline. Figure by Emily Wier.

Preliminary findings show that the most common policies cities are putting in place are increasing biking and walking infrastructure. Some highlights from my research include:

Grand Rapids, Michigan is prioritizing investment to encourage bicycling, walking, and other low-carbon transportation options.

Boulder, Colorado implemented a new tax to reduce emissions by over 5% annually and return $1.8 million to the city.

Des Moines, Iowa has a land use and transportation plan that pushes for future growth at multi-modal nodes and along transportation corridors.

These cities are leading the way and the dialogue at Paris will allow other mayors to learn from these examples and implement similar climate policies in their cities.

There’s still a long way to go - Des Moines’ plan lacks an enforcement and implementation strategy - there’s a very real chance that the plan will just sit on a shelf, accumulating dust. But some cities are getting it right - Columbus, Ohio has already reduced emissions by 11% and is on track to meet its goal of a 20% reduction by 2020.  As a result, we also need international leadership to reach an international agreement and strategy towards a global climate solution.

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Emily Wier is a Yale COP21 Fellow and first year masters student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. To learn more about Emily's research on climate change and cities, contact her by email emily.wier@yale.edu and follow her on twitter @EmilyWier.