Sunday, October 18, 2009
NEW YORK — This month, the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, a city of about 500,000 inhabitants in the American Southwest, became the 1,000th local leader to sign on to a climate change agreement under the United States Conference of Mayors.
In signing the compact — initiated in 2005 by Greg Nickels, the mayor of Seattle and the president of the conference — local leaders commit to reducing their cities’ carbon emissions in concert with the national goals laid out by the Kyoto Protocol: a 7 percent reduction over 1990 emissions levels by 2012.
As with the country-level signatories to the Kyoto agreement, many cities will fail to meet this goal. But with prospects dimming that world leaders will agree to a substantive successor treaty to the expiring Kyoto accord at the global climate summit meeting in Copenhagen in December, local endeavors like Mr. Nickels’s mayoral agreement would seem to take on a whole new measure of import.
“Locally elected officials can create ripples — and maybe even waves — in the fight against global warming,” Mr. Nickels wrote in the introduction to a report, published this month, highlighting the efforts of 16 mayors in various American cities. “What we do in our cities,” he continued, “whether it’s constructing green buildings, establishing electric car charging stations, planting urban forests or creating legions of good-paying green jobs, can serve as a model for state governments” and for Washington.
In a telephone conversation over the weekend, Tom Cochran, the executive director of the U.S. mayors’ conference, put it this way: “In my experience, mayors have always quietly changed human behavior — from civil rights to recycling,” he said. “You’re affecting things globally and nationally, but you start out locally.”
It is a sentiment echoed by local leaders across the globe — many of them frustrated by the partisan bickering and national chauvinism on display among nations involved in global climate negotiations.
“Advocacy for the role of local governments is not a luxury,” Bärbel Dieckmann, the mayor of Bonn, said in a video address to a global conference of mayors last June in Edmonton, Alberta. “It is the key to the sustainable future of billions of citizens of cities and towns worldwide. And who can show this commitment better than us, the world’s mayors?”
The winds of demographic change are certainly behind them.
Two years ago, researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia, working with United Nations data, estimated — somewhat lightheartedly — that the planet officially became more urban than rural for the first time on May 23, 2007.
The specificity of the date was, of course, largely symbolic, but the thesis was clear: More people are living in cities and urban areas than ever before. Indeed, the United Nations has estimated that as many as 60 percent of the planet’s inhabitants will be living in urban areas by 2030, compared with 14 percent a century ago.
Just what this means in the context of a roiling climate debate is unclear. Organizations like the United Nations and the Clinton Climate Initiative, for example, have made broad claims about the role of cities in contributing to a warmer planet.
“Cities occupy two percent of the world’s land mass yet contribute more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions,” begins the Clinton Initiative’s online explication of its C-40 program, which unites large cities across the globe in a commitment to reducing greenhouse gases.
Other metrics have cities consuming 70 percent or more of the planet’s energy resources and contributing as much as 80 percent to greenhouse gas emissions.
But other researchers — including David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London — have challenged those numbers, claiming that they are at best exaggerated and in reality unknowable.
Writing in the March 2009 issue of the United Nations Human Settlements Program’s flagship magazine, Urban World, Mr. Satterthwaite and his colleague David Dodman, drawing on the most recent figures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, estimate that cities contribute somewhere between 30 and 41 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
And even that estimate, the authors argue, is something of a wild guess:
“The data do not exist to provide an accurate figure,” they write, “which is probably why the I.P.C.C. made no estimates for the relative roles of cities, other urban centers and rural areas.”
Mr. Satterthwaite and Mr. Dobson argue that overstating the urban contribution to global warming diverts attention from the “real problem”: the consumptive, carbon-intensive lifestyles of individuals in rich nations — be they urban dwellers, suburban commuters or owners of a cabins in the woods.
Blaming cities “misses the point that well-planned and governed cities are central to de-linking a high quality of life from high levels of consumption,” the authors write.
“Most U.S. cities have three to five times the gasoline use per person of most European cities,” the authors note in elaborating their point, “and it is difficult to see that Detroit has five times the quality of life of Copenhagen or Amsterdam.”
Setting aside the antagonism of such an assertion, it follows a familiar logic: Like politics, all action on climate change is ultimately local.
“These are not issues that are dealt with by a president signing something,” said Mark Roseland, the director of the Center for Sustainable Community Development at Canada’s Simon Fraser University and the author of the book “Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments.”
Rather, Mr. Roseland said, they involve “mobilizing societies so that people are changing the way they deal with carbon in their lives.”
That means getting people out of their cars; investing in mass transit; providing incentives for personal efficiency; encouraging recycling and providing the ways and means to do it; and otherwise driving home the notion that individual actions matter.
It is also about recognizing, Mr. Roseland said, that the uncertain prospects for a global treaty in Copenhagen mean that local communities will need to lead the way on climate change — a problem that, at this late date, permits little room for dithering.
“I think there’s a lot of people who recognize that if we don’t have an agreement at Copenhagen, we can’t wait,” he said, “and this stuff will be very much driven from the bottom up, until senior leaders get their act together.”