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Are Cities To Blame For Climate Change?

By Roger Valdez

Whodunit study tries to remove cities from the list of usual suspects.

Who’s to blame for climate change? The author of a study published in Environment and Urbanization take on the role of detective trying to find who is releasing the emissions creating climate change. Their hope is to clear cities as the prime suspect.

After comparing existing inventories of emissions at the national and city level the author concludes that cities aren’t to blame. The study compares findings from 11 different city-level inventories with separate nation-level inventories. When placed side by side these inventories show that cities emit less, per capita, than the country they are in.

In almost every case—except the cities in China—the per capita emissions of the cities are lower than the per capita emissions of the country. For example, Washington DC emits 19.7 metric tons of CO2 annually per capita while the United States emits 23.92 metric tons per capita.


[See bigger and clearer table here.]

It’s more evidence that cities can be climate solutions, but it is worth noting that, the study’s approach is methodologically hazardous, since the studies of city emissions and country emissions were done by different groups at different times. There are few uniform standards for emissions inventories and there are almost certainly important methodological differences the accounts. Still, given the available data, the analysis is a helpful starting point.

Even though cities aren’t the prime culprit, they can still help solve climate change. They are well-situated to use zoning and technological innovation; and with high concentrations of people it may be easier to encourage large-scale behavior change to reduce green house gas emissions.

This piece originally appeared in Sightline Institutes blog, The Daily Score.

Photo credit: flickr/xk1sv, Creative Commons License.

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Come on, with statistics you can just distort every message or create your own one.

Here, it is the PER CAPITA emissions which are being compared - even of individual cities. For the environment, this is of little use - we need to drive down TOTAL emissions.

In Spain, 77% of the people live in urban spaces
USA: 81 %
Brazil: 85%
Argentina: 90%

China: 42%

Please don't fall into the green wash. Cities are currently not sustainable. Of course, they can be, but not by serving people wrong facts.

Posted by: Fabio on 18 Apr 09

If the city is growing much of it's own food within a 100 mile radius or even better in the city itself, like Havana does, then I can accept that it can be on the path toward sustainability. Just because New Yorkers don't drive as much, a laudable state of affairs to be sure, does not mean that they are not consuming lots of unnecessary consumer goods, importing their food from all over the world and powering their residences with fossil fuels.
We all have to share the "blame" if there is "blame" to be apportioned. Needless consumerism is driven by the city culture, the advertising agencies, the higher incomes, the disconnect from the systems that sustain us.

Posted by: C Robb on 18 Apr 09

I wonder if the studies took into account imports, as the previous commenter noted. It seems to me that if we can blame the west for offshoring its emissions to China and India (and we should), then it would also be worth taking into account how many emissions are produced in rural areas that ultimately make it back into cities - especially if we're talking about essentials like food production.

Posted by: Chris L on 19 Apr 09

I suppose outcome of a study like this depends a whole lot on methodology. Generally however the result doesn't surprise me since people in towns has less living space compared to people living in rural areas and therefore use less energy for heating and cooling their homes. People in towns, also generally, has shorter travel distance to work and to all other activities, plus they have the option of public transport. For People in rural areas the car is often the only alternative, except for china which is clearly reflected in the chart!

That said, I must also agree with some of the previous comments that cities are not sustainable. Of course they are not - not yet anyway, and to my understanding the writers of the Whodunit study don't think so either. As I read the chart it's an interesting comparison between cities over the world and their respective countries average emissions. And that has indeed a value!

Posted by: Björn Granberg on 19 Apr 09

I think this is a bit too generalised. Maybe some cities are good and some are bad, depending on the country and city?

For example, I live in Malmo, Sweden where there is the Western Harbour district powered by 100%, local renewable energy sources. Space is prioritised for people and bicycles, not cars. And organic waste is used to produce biogas for heat and busses. I think this must be a good place to live for reducing carbon emissions.

I've written about it more here:

Posted by: Michael O'Hare on 22 Apr 09

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