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Who’s winning the race to net zero, presidents or mayors?
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Who’s winning the race to net zero, presidents or mayors?

The answer will determine both the speed and efficacy of climate action.
March 16, 2023

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Half of humanity calls a city home, and that proportion is only increasing. Within two decades, more people will live in cities than the entire world population at the end of the 20th century. Many of those cities—including some of the richest—are also on the frontlines of climate change. By 2050, 800 million people will live in cities where sea levels could rise by more than half a meter: New York, Miami, Bangkok, and Shanghai among them. Some urban centers aren’t waiting for national politicians, and instead have “climate mayors” racing towards decarbonization on an accelerated timeline. But ambition doesn’t always equate to power. Will cities need the state’s muscle to reach the finish line? 


• • •

Leading from The Bottom Up

1.  Setting the pace. At least 60 cities have net-zero ambitions that exceed those of their respective nations, according to this crisp analysis by Capital Monitor of data gathered by the University of Oxford’s comprehensive Net Zero Tracker. Melbourne, Toronto and San Francisco are shooting for 2040, Zurich and Edinburgh for 2030, while Adelaide and Copenhagen think they can become net zero as soon as 2025. There is some evidence from Europe that this “leading from below” can influence national climate policy, too.

City versus State Net zero targets

This is a sample of cities and states from the original chart. For a full list go to the Capital Monitor.

2.  Creative shortcuts. The beauty of cities setting their own climate goals is that they can find individual—and shared—paths to success. US mayors are leveraging their collective buying power to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. Boston is expanding free transit. Copenhagen is turning waste into power (with bonus all-season skiing). Cocody in Ivory Coast is installing solar street lighting and distributing hundreds of thousands of biofuel stoves. “What cities have proven themselves able to do is network and collaborate across borders, which states and nations have refused to do,” wrote Benjamin Barber in his book “If Mayors Ruled the World.”

3.  Quick and nimble. A new study published in a Nature journal, and excellently summarized at CarbonBrief, shows that European cities’ carbon adaptation plans are improving. Looking at the climate plans of 167 cities between 2005 and 2020, researchers found that cities boosted their collective learning, knowledge transfer, capacity building, and trans-national networks when planning for extreme weather, flooding, and other climate change risks. CDP, a non-profit studying climate risks, agrees. In its latest ranking of cities, it rated a record 122 cities as leaders in environmental action and transparency, including some from the Global South.


• • •

Power Flows from The Top Down

1.  Climate change isn’t a local problem. For all their carbon aspirations, cities are responsible for a disproportionate three quarters of the world’s energy use, and over 80% of carbon emissions, according to the UN. That’s because most economic activity (again, about 80%) happens in cities. Reducing emissions within urban boundaries could simply displace economic activity – and the pollution that goes with it – to surrounding areas. National and global policies are needed to ensure solutions that work at the scale required. 

2.  Cities will likely never be self-sufficient. All the energy cities use has to come from somewhere—and don’t expect rooftop solar to close the loop. Studies around the world, from Kampala, Uganda to Wroclaw, Poland, have shown that cities are just too dense for photovoltaics to supply all (or even most) of the energy they need. That’s not altogether a bad thing: a grid that spans a nation—or even larger—can include diverse renewable sources and lower the cost and carbon footprint for all. And that’s the job of presidents.

3.  Big problems require bigger solutions. Compared to national governments, cities have little say in how their energy is generated, limited regulatory power to enforce low-carbon goals, and insufficient money to pay for moonshot transformations of transportation or industry. An article in the Houston Law Review argues persuasively that “climate science, economic interests, and our federal system of government limit the effectiveness of subnational policies” in the US. When Adam Millard-Bell of UC Santa Cruz analyzed climate plans for hundreds of California cities, he found little evidence that the plans had any causal effect. “Instead, cities are using climate plans to codify policies that were likely to happen anyway,” he wrote.


• • •

What To Keep An Eye On

1.  The US Supreme Court. If America’s highest court, currently controlled by a right-wing bloc, continues to erode the EPA’s ability to control carbon at the national scale, cities and states will be faced with picking up the slack.

2.  Urban carbon accounting. Getting large, thriving cities to net zero in a matter of just a few years will involve tough decisions—and require solid (or perhaps creative) accounting. A 2021 Nature paper surveying 48 US cities found that they were under-reporting their emissions by an average of 18%, making climate goals that much harder to reach.

3.  China. Centralized economies might seem capable of dealing with the tension between cities and states better than Western nations. But even as China rolls out high-speed rail and nuclear power stations galore, none of the country’s urban centers are currently on the CDP’s list of 122 leading climate cities.


Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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