Can Cities Fill the Gap in Climate Leadership?

Home to more than 50% of the global population, cities are at the center of the climate crisis. Local action plays an important role in reducing overall global emissions. But recent studies find that cities, like countries, struggle to accurately measure and report their carbon emissions.

“Countries Brought Big Promises to COP26. Cities Brought Actions,” read a headline from Time in the aftermath of the conference. This was a sentiment echoed throughout COP26 by local and subnational leaders who have no formal role in the negotiations but see themselves on the frontlines of climate change. This is for good reason.

A combination of factors puts cities at the center of the climate crisis. Cities are experiencing climate effects first-hand (think heat waves and flooding), they are responsible for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), they are home to more than 50% of the global population, and they are hubs of innovation. This suggests that cities have both the motivation and unparalleled position to address climate change locally which, in turn, impacts overall global emissions.

During a high-level event on COP26’s Cities, Regions, and Built Environment Day, Mayor Marvin Rees of Bristol, England and a 2021 Penn IUR Urban Leadership Award winner said “climate change will be won or lost in cities.” Mayors from around the world, representing cities of all sizes, attended COP26 touting climate action plans and innovative solutions in varying stages of implementation.

For example, the small city of Turku, Finland, showcased its ambitious and already in-place plan to build a circular economy and achieve carbon neutrality by 2029. And the Zero Emission Rapid-deployment Accelerator (ZEBRA) partnership announced its expansion—with a $1 billion investment in zero-emission bus fleets in cities across Latin America.

But with all the laudable locally based climate ambition comes a serious note of caution. One of the most distressing criticisms to emerge during the COP26 negotiations came from a Washington Post analysis that showed many member states significantly underreport their GHGs, upon which their climate commitments rest.

“At the low end,” the Post’s analysis found, “the gap is larger than the yearly emissions of the United States. At the high end, it approaches the emissions of China and comprises 23 percent of humanity’s total contribution to the planet’s warming.” Without transparent and consistent measurements, logic follows, it’s impossible to accurately report progress, or lack thereof, and make necessary course corrections to keep the earth from warming 1.5 degrees past pre-industrial levels.

Cities, unfortunately, face similar criticisms. A recent study looking at U.S. cities published earlier this year in the journal Nature Communications found “that cities under-report their own greenhouse gas emissions, on average, by 18.3% (range: −145.5% to +63.5%)—a difference which if extrapolated to all U.S. cities, exceeds California’s total emissions by 23.5%.”

Furthermore, a July 2021 study of 167 cities around the world from the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities found “current inventory methods used by cities significantly vary, making it hard to assess and compare the progress of emission mitigation over time and space.” And an October 2020 Brookings report “looked at the 100 largest U.S. cities and found that, as of 2017, only 45 had any serious climate pledge at all—and that many of the pledges that did exist [relied] heavier on aspiration than reality.” With about two-thirds of cities lagging in their targeted emission levels and almost all without reliable GHG inventories, this assessment highlights the hurdles facing a “bottom’s up” approach to fighting climate change.

Despite the grim findings, the authors of all these studies acknowledge the necessity and great potential for cities to contribute to the overall global climate goals. Like countries, cities must set ambitious plans for a climate friendly future and follow up with action that can be measured in transparent and consistent ways.

Amy Montgomery

Managing Director, PennIUR
Amy Montgomery is the managing director of Penn Institute for Urban Research where she oversee all aspects of operations and management.