My time at Copenhagen’s C40 climate summit ended with me marching
through the city, chanting for action alongside thousands of other protesters.
The pouring rain, and my lack of Danish, didn’t dampen a cathartic moment at
the end of an inspiring week. I had heard about a host of brilliant initiatives
from forward-thinking city leaders, each idea lowering emissions while
delivering better lives today.
But one big issue – economics – was pushed to the margins. We
didn’t fully address the issue until the last day of the conference. This was a
missed opportunity, because economics is completely tied up with sustainability
and our response to the climate crisis. Our cities can be drivers of, and
testbeds for, new economic approaches.
As the summit went on, we heard about progress on zero
carbon buildings, smart energy infrastructure, waste recycling, heat networks,
infrastructure resilience and a green new deal in every city. Economic change
is so important because continual-growth capitalism will, if left unchecked,
undermine all this great work. If we consume more and more, we face a huge
battle just to limit emissions to current levels. And those current levels put
us on course for climate meltdown.
So what can our cities do? First they, need to get an honest
picture of how much their economies drive climate change. Second, they need to
embrace a circular approach – pursuing liveable neighbourhoods over profit.
Climate Action Co-Benefits Toolkit
Step one – face up to the consumption crisis
When most cities measure their carbon impact, they don’t
fully account for the emissions created elsewhere by the things they consume.
It’s much easier to make this embodied carbon someone else’s problem.
But we should be learning from cities like Portland in the
US, which is pioneering new methodologies that measure the entire value chain
of a product or service. This gives you have a fairer picture of a city’s
impact, and creates a platform for everyone – from residents to public bodies
to the businesses that supply them – to work together to solve the problem.
What does this mean in practice? Well, we all expect new buildings
to be energy efficient, with minimal use of energy for heating and lighting.
But manufacturing any new building produces a lot of carbon, however ‘green’ the
finished structure is. So shouldn’t cities use new retrofit techniques to make existing buildings more efficient?
The same goes for cars and vans – even electric
ones. While these are better than high-pollution models, our top priorities should include bold schemes that get more people cycling and walking – as well as encouraging them to share cars and car journeys.