Creating the Cities of the Future
Youth have spoken — it’s time to act, now.
Cities emit 70 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, and by the year 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Although they represent a significant part of the climate crisis, cities also have the opportunity to be a critical part of the climate change solution. Many cities throughout the United States and Europe have been pioneering innovative technologies and new solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and becoming “smart cities.”
Creating the Cities of the Future was the subject of the Climate Diplomacy Week event hosted by the EU Delegation to the U.S. and the Embassy of Sweden on May 29, 2019. During Climate Diplomacy Weeks, EU Delegations and embassies of several EU Member States around the world hold various events to foster dialogue and cooperation on climate change, showcase success stories and inspire further action.
Moderator David Livingston, Deputy Director for Climate and Advanced Energy at the Atlantic Council kicked off the event with a quote from President John F. Kennedy: “We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation.” This introduction set the stage as environmental leaders, green infrastructure experts, and city leaders from the DC metropolitan area and around the world gathered to discuss the role of smart cities in combating climate change and to address the challenges of promoting sustainable growth in cities of different sizes and socioeconomic levels.
Working Together to Create Smart Cities
Karin Olofsdotter, Ambassador of Sweden to the United States, said “urbanization is strong, fast, and brings many opportunities and challenges.” She emphasized the importance of partnerships between U.S. and European cities in discovering innovative ways to combat climate change and said, “together we welcome the emergence of the new.” Ambassador Olofsdotter shared that she found it hard to accept when people still question climate change. Sweden, as a leading European country, brings solutions to the table and aims for climate neutrality by 2045.
The city of Helsingborg in Sweden is known as “Europe’s greenest city.” In the words of Helsingborg’s Environmental Director, Henrik Frindberg, “A smart city is an innovative and sustainable city with a low footprint and a high quality of life.” Helsingborg now aims for climate neutrality by 2035. The city’s district heating will be based on 100% recovered and renewable energy already in 2024.
In a video message, Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice President of the European Commission for the Energy Union and Co-Chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy uniting over 9,000 cities and local governments, echoed this sentiment of cooperation when he stated, “Cities in the U.S. are a key partner. Without close links between Europe and the U.S., we would be missing opportunities.”
Youth Climate Activists Speak Out
A number of youth climate activists from around the world stressed the urgency for action and importance of voting for representatives who will prioritize finding solutions to the climate crisis, as well as emphasizing the need for countries to adhere to their commitments to reduce CO2 emissions.
These young European and American climate activists are calling for the implementation of “every letter and every word” of the Paris Climate Agreement. In the recent European Parliament elections, young voters made it clear that climate change is at the forefront of their concerns. These elections were prefaced by weeks of climate protests, largely led by youth activists like Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg.
The EU as a Global Actor on Climate Change
The European Union has been a key leader in international action on climate change, particularly with measures like the 2015 Paris Agreement, which requires each country to determine, plan, and report on its measures to combat global warming, with an overall goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to further limit the increase to 1.5 °C.
EU Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis reiterated the urgency to act as “We are headed for temperature increases which could prevent our planet from remaining hospitable for the generations to come.” While the EU is well on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 (with 45% within reach) and is moving toward a climate neutral economy and society by 2050, Ambassador Lambrinidis also pointed out: “The European Union is the world leader in climate finance, contributing up to 95% of the Climate Adaptation Fund and 50% of the Green Fund.” In 2017 alone, the EU and its Member States contributed over 20 billion euro in climate finance.
Jakub Gibek, Head of the Climate Policy Unit in the Ministry of the Environment of Poland, and Bureau of COP24 Presidency, reported that as a global community, “we are moving away from climate negotiations to climate action, and everyone is on the same side.” Mr. Gibek explained that governments have adopted provisions to form the foundations, but they cannot solve the climate crisis without the participation of non-state actors and local officials. Mr. Gibek underlined the importance of a “just transition” in the shift towards decarbonized and climate resilient economies. The European Union has taken action in this regard, including a policy mechanism supporting coal and carbon-intensive regions in transition to ensure that no region is left behind in the move towards a climate neutral economy.
Ana Unruh Cohen, Staff Director of the Select Committee on Climate Crisis in the U.S. House of Representatives, reiterated the need for cooperation between the federal and local governments. She described the goals of the Select Committee as striving to “reduce emissions dramatically but also deal with the existing impacts of the climate crisis.” Dr. Unruh Cohen also stated that it was vital to involve vulnerable communities and businesses as an integral part of the conversation on combating climate change. The voice of the youth has brought climate issues to the forefront, and they are poised to play a significant role in the upcoming U.S. elections next year. Unruh Cohen underlined that among priorities for the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis is offshore wind and its positive impact on jobs and growth; carbon removal technologies such as CCS as well as improving resiliency to climate change.
Mayor Eugene W. Grant of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, then joined the stage to offer his perspective as the leader of a small smart city with big plans for using innovative technologies to create a sustainable environment for residents. Mayor Grant emphasized that “having a connection with your residents and understanding their challenges is important,” and having a smart city “helps us to help them meet those challenges.”
Local leaders on the panel focused on sustainability described their experiences with international urban cooperation. Lisa McNeilly, Director of Sustainability for the City of Baltimore described interaction with Rotterdam, Baltimore’s sister city, and other international cities as highly valuable because the challenges that Baltimore faces are “shared by other cities in the U.S. and Europe.” Ms. McNeilly stated that “working internationally is a way for us to learn to use tools to combat these issues.
Daniel P. Conner, Senior Advisor in the Office of the Director in the Department of Energy & Environment for DC government discussed the beneficial impacts of sister city developments when he reported that after sending a delegation to Copenhagen and Brussels, the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Bill was signed into law. Mr. Conner explained that 75% of greenhouse emissions come from buildings, so this bill “has building energy performance standards to cut emissions by 20%.” By engaging in international cooperation on the issue of climate change, cities can learn from each other on how to promote sustainability and address common issues. Daniel P. Conner also shared that the DC government is setting up a Green Bank to finance innovative climate solutions.
Current Challenges and Hopes for the Future
An issue raised by panelists was the challenge of promoting sustainability in low-income areas, as well convincing companies to prioritize sustainability. Mr. Conner reported that one of the biggest issues facing DC was changing the culture of development by showing builders and architects that it is possible to build sustainably and still make a profit. In implementing the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Bill, the objective is to change the construction and development culture in Washington DC with more of a focus on the climate agenda and sustainability. Axel Baeumler, Senior Infrastructure Economist at the World Bank, made the point that “cities only urbanize once,” meaning that it is important to build sustainably because “you’re stuck with your footprint.” He emphasized the challenges of promoting sustainability in areas where income levels are low, since it often comes down to “jobs vs. sustainability.”
Though smart cities are leading the way in the fight against climate change through new innovations, cities face inherent obstacles due to historical events that have impacted their designs. Mina Marefat, Principal, Design Research on SCS MPS Urban and Regional Planning at Georgetown University, explained that “bills in the 1950s like the GI Bill and the Housing Bill have resulted in urban sprawl,” and though the shape of urban form is difficult to change, architecture matters and should factor into discussions on making cities more sustainable.
Atte Riihelä, Project Manager for Intelligent Urban Transportation at Ramboll, explained that “cities have been planned for the last 100 years based on the private car.” This prior emphasis on cars creates a challenge when introducing multimodal transportation for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions because all existing infrastructure was created for cars, not for more climate-friendly options like bicycles and scooters.
Dr. Marefat stressed that there must be “major policy changes if we are going to lessen the impacts of the automobile.” Though the scooters have “received controversial feedback”, namely because there is a lack of infrastructure to support them, Dr. Manuel Perez Romero, founding partner of the nodo17 group and professor at the Instituto de Empresa in Spain, talked about the importance of education and stated that “new policies need time for adaptation.” Chuck Bean, Executive Director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, added that we need to have “more and more of disruptions in energy technology and sustainable mobility — “the more disruption and innovation, the better.”
In his closing remarks, Ambassador Lambrinidis stated that “there is political power that comes from people speaking out” on issues like climate change. He emphasized that addressing the climate crisis must start in our homes and offices, and everyone must play a role. Ambassador Lambrinidis said that “the urgency to act remains,” and stated, “we owe it to our children and grandchildren to stand up,” but stressed that “they are not waiting for us.” “You can count on the European Union to remain committed to climate action.”
The youth are a key voice in the discussion on climate change, and they are bringing vital issues to the forefront by refusing to remain silent on the climate crisis and urging politicians and world leaders to take action before it is too late.
As urbanization increases, it is important to look to cities as laboratories of innovation when it comes to reducing emissions and combatting the effects of climate change. With the foundations set forth by national governments combined with efforts by local city leaders, activists, and environmental experts, it is clear that smart cities are a key force on the path to sustainability and fighting the climate crisis.
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