Cleaner air, new jobs and reduced inequality. The benefits of creating low-carbon cities

Actions to reduce carbon emissions in our cities have a number of under-appreciated benefits. Andrew Sudmant and Andy Gouldson explain how creating greener cities can save money and help to address a number of social issues.

Climate action is rarely a primary consideration when investments are made in cities. Roads and transport networks are built to improve mobility, homes to provide shelter, offices to create places to work.

But with more than three-quarters of global emissions coming from urban areas, and a majority of the global population living there, it is increasingly critical that urban actors consider climate change in their decision-making.

Drawing on evidence from more than 700 academic papers, our research provides a systematic review of the wider benefits — and sometimes costs — of climate action in urban areas. Results show that we may be under-appreciating the extent that low carbon investments can contribute to a wide set of urban challenges.

Indeed, in some cases addressing seemingly unrelated urban issues — around public health, employment, poverty, and sanitation — may be hard to achieve without also reducing carbon emissions and improving climate resilience. In three areas these benefits are especially notable.

Improving public health

Combating climate change can lead to significant health benefits for citizens. Up to three billion people rely on open fires for heating, cooking, and lighting, leading to four million deaths from indoor air pollution. When health benefits are taken into account, solar lighting and clean cook stoves can save up to 60 times the investment costs.

Poor heating and ventilation also contribute to chronic ill-health. While the direct savings on energy bills are sufficient to generate an attractive return on investment, the monetised health benefits associated with improving indoor environmental quality can be more than 10 times the value of energy savings.

The value of health benefits from investments in cycling infrastructure is another area in which cities can save money while improving public health. The money saved by improving infrastructure can amount to more than five times the cost of investment. Extrapolating across Europe, this suggests that the health benefits from cycling could be worth 35–136 billion US dollars annually.

Motor vehicle crashes are responsible for 1.3 million global deaths each year and over 78 million injuries. Where public transport networks are well developed, transport-related injuries are more than 80% lower.

Creating green jobs

Investments in upgrading existing buildings and raising the energy efficiency of new buildings in OECD cities could lead to the creation of two million net jobs annually in the period to 2050. Equivalent investments in non-OECD cities could generate anywhere from 2 million to 16 million jobs annually in the same period.

Investments in expanding public transport and improving vehicle efficiency could also lead to the creation of more than three million net jobs annually in OECD cities, and a minimum of three million and up to 23 million jobs annually in non-OECD cities, in the period to 2050.

Reducing inequality

Many actions that combat climate change will benefit the poorest in society. For example, between 16% and 50% of the total benefits associated with programs to retrofit existing buildings in Europe are in the form of improved health, thermal comfort, living conditions and productivity of residents. This is especially true for residents who are relatively poorer.

Another way in which creating greener cities reduces the effects of inequality is through improving public transport systems. People from lower income brackets typically spend more time commuting and will benefit from faster and more efficient networks. Public transport networks which will also reduce carbon emissions are therefore found to disproportionately benefit the urban poor.

Vulnerable populations often have poorer health than the average. They may also be more likely to live and work in polluted areas. As a result, marginalised groups benefit disproportionately from interventions which improve air quality.

Policy implications

Previous research has demonstrated that low carbon investment in cities can generate substantial economic returns. But the economic case may not on its own generate the level of action needed to prevent dangerous climate change.

Furthermore, in the face of a range of urban challenges, including poverty, air pollution, poor transport networks, and insufficient housing, policymakers with finite time and resources need actions that can target multiple issues.

The benefits for health, jobs and equality identified by our analysis are not guaranteed. The distribution of benefits and their scale will vary from city to city and from the way that policies and programs are designed and implemented. But as a first step, viewing climate change as connected with, and in cases, inseparable from, a wider set urban challenges, can open new opportunities for action.

While climate change will remain an issue that is long term, global, and relatively uncertainty, the benefits of climate action — in cleaner air, new jobs, and more inclusive cities — can be seen as near-term, local, and relatively certain.

Read more about how the University of Leeds is tackling global challenges.