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C40 Voices: Mark Watts, Executive Director on key elements to a sustainable low carbon city

At the recent ‘Copenhagen – Paris: A roadmap to COP21’ event, C40 Executive Director Mark Watts shared the following remarks.

Cities are where the battle to prevent climate change will be won or lost. Indeed, the pattern of development followed by a small number of leading cities will likely determine whether or not it is possible to constrain average temperature rise to the IPCC target of 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The recently published New Climate Economy report found that between now and 2030 a select group of less than 500 key cities (including all 70 C40 members) will be responsible for 60% of GDP growth and 50% of carbon emission growth. There is plenty of evidence that many city leaders are up to this challenge and a small number of metropolises are already on the path to decoupling economic growth from environmental pollution.

But the general pattern of urban development is, in many places, going in the wrong direction. To reverse this, we need to be clear about what makes a sustainable low carbon city and create the opportunities for all cities to learn from those leading the way.

To my mind, there are three key elements to a sustainable low carbon city:

1) Cities must pursue density, not sprawl: 60% of growth in energy consumption is due to sprawl. Extra concrete and steel alone could add 470GT CO2 by 2050. Rigorous planning policy is needed to deliver compact, dense cities, with plenty of green space and eco-system services.

2) A successful city is not where the poor drive cars, but where the rich choose to use the bus: Emissions growth is fastest in the transport sector. A car-based mobility model imposes huge costs, for example Houston spends 14% of GDP on transport, versus 4% in Copenhagen. 7 million people die each year globally from air pollution. Switching to electric vehicles is part of the solution, as shown by the city of Oslo, which plans all public transportation to be renewably powered by 2020. But the basic model of urban mobility has to be public transport, cycling & walking. Shenzhen in China had 500,000 cars in 2004, 3.5 million today and will have 9 million cars projected by 2020 if no action is taken. To reverse this trend, the city is now planning a massive programme of public transport investment plus carbon pricing for cars.

3) Climate change is fundamentally a product of market failure, and if national governments can’t intervene, local governments must. We shouldn’t be afraid of good regulation – it drives successful markets, for example, the Clean Air legislation in Los Angeles cleaned up air pollution and now Mayor Garcetti leads a trade delegation to China to sell the technology solutions. In the UK, Bristol is setting up its own energy company to provide a district heating solution that a poorly incentivized national market won’t provide.

If we do get cities on a sustainable development path, then it will make a massive difference to the prospects of inter-governmental climate talks in the run up to Paris COP 2015, and beyond. Action by cities can close at least a third of the ‘emissions gap’ between now and 2020. And it could spur national governments – to date, 80% of city government carbon targets are not included in national reduction commitments.

The pace of action required to respond to climate change means cities haven’t got time to work everything out by themselves. They have to copy good ideas from each other. That’s why C40 and other collaborative city forums are so important. C40’s research shows t hat city climate actions among our cities have doubled across the global network since 2011, including a six-fold increase in cycle hire programmes, and a tripling of cities investing in bus rapid transit (BRT).

Sharing ideas and knowledge is working, as leading cities like those in the C40 have shown. The key now is for all metropolises to follow suit, so that all cities can seize the tremendous opportunities for low carbon growth and deliver local solutions that will have a collective global impact on addressing the climate change challenge we so urgently face.