Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Looking at the Paris Negotiations from a City Perspective

Avenue de Bretueil in Paris
Over 190 nations are now in Paris negotiating protocols to stem the slide toward catastrophic climate change.  At the same time, entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates are in Paris pledging billions of dollars toward finding new technologies to limit the carbon emissions from energy production.

I wish both efforts success, a wish with which few would disagree.

But neither effort quite aligns with the perspective that cities bring to the climate change conversation.  And that’s because cities are looking at a different segment of the carbon reduction curve than countries and entrepreneurs.

The nations and philanthropists are looking for ways to continue generating energy to grow economies, but with fewer or no carbon emissions.  Conversely, cities are looking for ways to live with less energy.  Entrepreneurs are looking for ways to power cars with fewer emissions.  Cities are trying to have people live more of their lives on bicycles.

Some may argue that the two paths lead to the same destination, so why quibble about the route?  But there’s a downside to solving problems with cutting edge technology.  We often fail to foresee unfortunate side effects.  The rule of unintended consequences always bats last.

Refining crude oil into lamp oil to light more homes and to reduce the hunting pressure on whales seemed a good plan.  Surely it couldn’t be a problem to drain the unusable fraction, now known as gasoline, into the nearby Cuyahoga River?

Harnessing the power of the atom to replace dangerous and earth scarring coal mining in feeding energy grids seemed a good plan.  Surely we could agree on a safe way to store the spent fuel, right?

I’m not predicting that the clean energy concepts to be brought forth by Gates and friends will result in environmental harm such as burning rivers or mounds of spent uranium awaiting a final home.  But it might.  Because stuff happens.

To the extent we can, making do with less energy is the safer route, the route with less potential for distressing surprises.  Thus, it’s worth observing the attention being given to cities and their responses to climate change, most of which focus on reduced energy usage.

Writing in Next City, Feargus O’Sullivan describes the efforts by host city Paris to reduce carbon emissions by limiting the use of private cars while enhancing the transit, pedestrian, and bicycle opportunities. 

Writing in CityLab, Laura Bliss provides a broader overview of city initiatives around the world, with many of the same points of emphasis as Paris along with better electrical grid management, improved building energy performance, and energy efficient appliances.

Finally, Alex Morales in Bloomberg Business describes some of the specific goals set by cities.  Morales also notes that cities can more easily innovate than countries.   He quotes Shelley Poticha, Director of Urban Solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who offers “Cities are centers of adaptation and innovation, and they don’t have to wait for international negotiations or congressional action.”

However, the Bloomberg article concludes with the note that not all municipal citizens may yet be on board.  From Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, “The pushback comes when we make changes that disrupt people’s everyday lives.  There will always be people who will say, ‘We like the idea of adjusting to the impacts on the climate, but don’t change my world.”’

I’m not suggesting the city route of reduced energy usage is the only option.  Previous climate change negotiations have stumbled over the suggestion that less developed countries cut energy usage along with everyone else, which they perceived as forcing them to remain behind in the fight for better standards of living.  Less developed countries deserve the opportunity to join more developed countries, so the technological ideas put forth by Gates and other s are important. 

But as the Paris gathering moves toward a conclusion, we should be paying attention to what cities are saying about battling climate change.  They may have the more pertinent message.  And we should be willing to accept the logic they put forth.

We should also be looking to position all of our communities to follow the lead of the cutting edge cities in creating land use patterns that can benefit from better transit, bicycling routes, and pedestrian opportunities.

Which means we should all be urbanists.

A young planner with whom I chat regularly recently made a comment about the Petaluma street on which he grew up.  It was a commonsensical, but nonetheless insightful, point that many would have missed about the connection between street configuration and driving speed.  I’ll dig more deeply into his observation in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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