Cities are home to more than half the world’s population — and produce about 70% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. So while climate change is a global problem, the day-to-day causes and effects will have to be dealt with at a local level.
“If you’re a company, you can move assets, but cities are not like that,” says Paul Simpson, Chief Executive Officer of CDP, a nonprofit research group that pushes institutions to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions. “Cities know they are very exposed to climate risk and that they also have opportunities to make better cities, with better air quality and a better quality of life for the people.”
Every year, CDP publishes a catalog of companies called the A List, which includes businesses that have not only set out climate adaptation action plans, they’ve also publicly reported such things as their emissions inventories — that is, the mix of types of pollutants they’re putting out — and how much progress they’ve made toward achieving their goals. Last year, CDP introduced a similar ranking for cities.
About 12% of 850 cities analyzed made it onto the 2019 A List, released today, up from about 7% last year. Overall, according to CDP, the number of cities around the world with rigorous environmental standards in place has more than doubled.
Progress isn’t a part of the ranking, but based on the data, some cities are clearly doing better than others.
Of the cities that responded to CDP’s call for data, Palo Alto, Calif., is the closest to hitting its targets: According to its self-reporting, it’s more than 56% of the way toward its goal of cutting emissions by 80% before 2030, compared to its 1990 baseline. Stockholm and Toronto have set a similar pace, although their targets are further out. Once the beating heart of the U.K.’s industrial revolution, Manchester is also way ahead of schedule in its ambition to eliminate emissions, for the most part, by 2038. This will involve removing greenhouse gases equivalent to 20.6 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
More than 46 cities have set goals of 80% emissions cuts or more by 2050 or before, while 19 of those have pledged to become fully carbon neutral. Larger cities such as London, Paris, and New York are advancing toward their targets at a slower pace — but their task is also more difficult as their total emissions are much higher.
In general, rich countries have tended to do better on the list. But the inclusion of cities such as Iskandar in Malaysia and Rio de Janeiro on this year’s A List shows that the sense of urgency is intensifying, especially in developing nations that feel the effects of extreme weather events more directly.
“Cities have a dual role to play — not only to reduce emissions but also to protect their citizens,” says Kyra Appleby, CDP’s global director for cities, states, and regions. “This is part of the broader climate movement gaining traction. It feels like this is the time for action and implementations.”
The data also show, however, that big targets aren’t always matched by action on the ground. Oslo and Seattle set some of the world’s most ambitious targets, for instance, but have made little progress toward achieving them. The Norwegian capital set an emissions reduction target of 95% against 1990 levels by 2030. Three years after the pledge and with 10 to go, it’s barely 10% there.
Seattle is 6% of the way to hitting its ambition, set in 2011, of zeroing out pollution by 2050. The list also includes Portland, Eugene and Vancouver, B.C.
In the little over four years since the signing of the Paris Agreement, the arguments for cutting emissions and fighting climate change have permeated most mainstream political and investment agendas. As Arctic sea ice has retreated to historic lows and forests have burned at unprecedented scope and scale, extreme heat events, floods, droughts, and poor air quality have also ravaged urban populations.
Cities from some of the world’s most polluting countries are noticeably absent from this year’s roundup. There’s no top grade for any cities in India, for instance. While no mainland Chinese cities made the list, Hong Kong and some Taiwanese cities are recognized.
Then there’s the U.S., of course. President Donald Trump has been openly skeptical of climate change and is in the process of removing the U.S. from the Paris agreement. And yet at least 34 American cities have made A-worthy climate commitments, including 19 new additions this year.
“We have passed a tipping point of awareness,” Simpson says. But keeping governments accountable is still a challenge. “A commitment normally is forward-looking, and it takes time for a town or a city to implement against those,” Simpson says. “But there’s a huge onus to track progress against these commitments and plans.”
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