The world’s cities: The “sweet spot” of climate change

John Rennie Short, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, says cities are "at a sweet spot to react to climate change."

Cities are a focal point for action on climate change — and in time, climate action will seem as compelling to urbanites as the introduction of clean water systems in the late 1800s.  That’s the argument John Rennie Short, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, made in March at the Conference on Communities and Urban Sustainability, hosted by the French Embassy in Washington, D. C. The comments below are excerpted from his talk and a subsequent Citiscope interview.


Cities are at a sweet spot to react to climate change.  They’re the centers of global population and economic activity.  

We see China as one national economy — but in fact it’s three huge ones: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.  Tokyo is 50 percent of Japan’s GDP.  Cities are crucially important as agglomerations of population and economic activity.  Make a difference in big cities — a Tokyo or New York or Beijing — and you can have a substantial global impact.

Cities are points in a network.  The map shows the world divided into nation states. Actually a much more important way is to see the globe as a network of cities.  Most flows of globalization move between city regions in different nations.  So rather than think of a world of nation states, see it as a network of globally connected cities — for knowledge, for best practices.

Cities are also key because nation states can be too big to connect with local communities and often too small to influence global events.  Cities are a powerful point of leverage and connection to get things done.  And cities are quicker, much more nimble.  And they have the possibility of triggering profound changes

We do have a severe problem with urban metrics.  In this respect, we are pre-Copernicus.  There are almost no urban metrics to explain or measure urban sustainability or resilience.  We do have some possible matrixes — for example the ecological, or water, or carbon footprint of cities. But there are big problems with the data, the protocols for analysis.  The measures we now have are just a beginning.  We know high density cities have a lower carbon footprint.  But we currently have no indicators of urban sustainability — and very limited ways to measure the impact of policy changes we envision for the future.

Climate conferences should focus on good metrics of urban sustainability. We need a system that’s comprehensive, reliable, and predictive. Because urban sustainability is the right, smart, only thing to do.

Environmental issues are still like fighting the good fight. While economic measures — especially jobs — often seem more compelling. We need to bring sustainability to the same level as jobs, or saving money. Consider walking and biking — for waiting time saved, for urban health — and then monetize those benefits plus health.  Or congestion — it may be imposing a 5 percent or so cost on businesses that wouldn’t exist if the environment were green.

And attitudes can change.  Take the issue of public health, from the late 19th century. A few cities led in providing fresh water supplies to homes and businesses — with massive health payoffs.  That progress came on an issue — water — that hadn’t been much discussed in earlier times. We’re at the same point now with ideas of sustainability and green urbanism — to demonstrate their actual payoff.

True, It’s hard to sell issues based on a global environmental benefit — that’s too vague.  But claim real savings from better practices.  For example: Demonstrate that from certain measures, within five years a household or business will save a definite percentage from its energy bill.  That trend is already being demonstrated, in fact, by new evidence of how much solar panels can cut a home or business’ monthly power bill.

For cities and climate saving, the big question is how to hold the cities’ feet to the fire.  Measurement needs to be independent of the cities themselves. There’s a compelling need to verify — just as with international atomic energy issues. Perhaps the world needs an urban observatory that’s independent, objective, with international assessments — issuing report cards every year or five years.

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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