With America out of the Paris Climate Agreement, can cities take the lead in tackling climate change?

When Andy Gouldson published a report into how the Leeds City Region could fulfil its plans to reduce carbon emissions in 2012, he had little idea that five years later his team’s research would be changing the way cities around the world tackle climate change.

Professor Gouldson and his team in the School of Earth and Environment — especially Andrew Sudmant and Joel Millward-Hopkins — are in the vanguard of showing city leaders how they can be both pro-development and pro-environment.

Their approach to understanding energy and carbon in future cities is now shaping urban policy in Peru, Brazil, Canada, Rwanda, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. Here in Britain, cities such as Leeds, Bristol and Birmingham have also knocked on Professor Gouldson’s door to discover how they too can develop their economies and reduce their carbon footprints.

A global plan for cities

The team’s recent work, Accelerating Low Carbon Development in the World’s Cities, turned its attention to the global picture rather than individual cities. What it revealed made headlines around the world and raised a cheer from the Compact of Mayors, an international network of civic leaders who are implementing the kind of measures Professor Gouldson advocates to improve the life chances of more than 430 million people in 541 cities.

The report attracted extensive coverage in US media including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, National Geographic and The Economist, along with articles across Europe and the Asia. “We were surprised at how quickly the story went viral,” said Professor Gouldson. “The Houston article, for instance, was shared on-line 80,000 times and the one in The Guardian 15,000 times. It was even re-tweeted by Al Gore.”

Publication of the report — part of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate’s New Climate Economy project — was timed to feed into the COP21 Paris climate change summit in 2015. It revealed that city leaders could unlock a stream of savings worth a staggering $17 trillion by 2050 by investing in more efficient buildings, better transport and improved waste management.

At the same time, Professor Gouldson says this investment would cut greenhouse gas emissions by eight billion tonnes in the period to 2050 (world emissions are currently 32 billion tonnes per year). “This would go a long way to halving the gap between current projections for global temperatures and the goal of holding warming to two degrees Celsius,” he added.

While the price tag for unlocking these benefits and savings is estimated to be around $1 trillion a year between 2015 and 2050, the work shows how these investments will pay for themselves within 16 years, bringing massive savings to 99% of the world’s urban areas, which will be home to more than six billion people by 2050.

The team’s research has drawn support from Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York and UN Special Envoy on Cities and Climate Change. Bloomberg said the Leeds team’s work shows: “The steps that cities take to shrink their carbon footprints can also reduce their energy costs, improve public health, and help attract new residents and businesses. It helps accelerate the progress cities are making in all of these areas by highlighting smart policies and encouraging cooperation through efforts like the Compact of Mayors.”

Gouldson and his team believe in cooperation. In their recent work with Recife — the ninth largest city in Brazil, and one with a population density almost triple that of London — his team collaborated closely with city leaders and stakeholders to create a development plan that would attract support. They also won backing from the UK Foreign Office — who see the potential benefit to UK businesses from continued growth in this region — and ICLEI, the powerful international Local Governments for Sustainability network that includes 12 megacities, 100 super-cities, 450 big cities and urban regions, as well as 450 small and medium-sized cities across 83 countries.

The impact of the report resulted in Recife making major changes to its urban development plans. “Our study led to the adoption of an ambitious low carbon target; a revision of the city’s Masterplan; the creation of a new low carbon infrastructure plan; and the building of a remarkable new park next to the river in the heart of the city. This will enable people to walk and cycle to work with benefits of clean air and public health whilst also protecting the city against flooding,” he said.

Jussara Carvalho, Executive Director of ICLEI agrees: “We believe Recife is on the right track to make a real transition from a traditional economy based on fossil fuel and grey infrastructure to an inclusive low carbon society, bringing elements that will enable the city to become smarter and more sustainable.

As a result of the report written by the University of Leeds, the City of Recife has seen some alternatives that could be included in its Low Emission Development Action Plan, hence building its long-term planned strategy.” The speed with which his findings have been adopted delights Gouldson and his team.

“All too often we find that climate change is at the periphery of policy making, consigned to a department with little influence and even less funding,” he said. “Our analysis, with its focus on the economic benefits of investment in smart buildings, integrated mass transport and improved waste management, changes that perception. City leaders see how it is in their interests to take climate change from the periphery and put it into the heart of urban regeneration, transport and housing and energy — the powerhouse departments of a city.”

But there can be other, sometimes less obvious, obstacles to change. A key one is clearly funding — but the work helps to provide the evidence that city’s need to secure major investments. “One of the things our work did in Lima was to help the city pull together and submit a big application to improve its transport systems. We helped to strengthen the evidence base on transport, by providing an economic assessment of different options and a carbon assessment of what their impact would be. We were just part of a broader initiative — but collaboration on this enabled Lima to apply for $300 million of international climate finance to help extend the mass transit metro scheme and extend its cycle lanes.” Professor Gouldson said.

Improving air quality

While Gouldson’s work focuses on how investment can improve development and impact on climate change, the model has other benefits. The three-city study he and his team are just completing with partners in China will contain the increasingly familiar correlations between climate change and economic benefits, but he believes the Chinese authorities are just as immediately interested in the air quality benefits that could come from his proposals.

Recent studies suggest that 4,000 people a day die in China as a result of air pollution and the authorities are keen to reverse the trend quickly. These global commissions and impacts may seem a long way from the first Leeds City Region study in 2012, but Professor Gouldson and his team are still deeply engaged with their home city and its quest to create a low carbon economy.

“Our initial research in Leeds provided the evidence base for a low carbon economic strategy and helped to secure significant funding, — including £20 million for more energy efficient homes throughout the Leeds City Region,” Professor Gouldson said.

Like many local authorities, however, the nine councils that comprise the Leeds City Region have been hit by spending cuts, making it much more difficult to keep climate change at the top of the agenda. “It was never right to make councils solely responsible for delivering a low carbon city — we are all responsible. That is why the university is helping set up what we think is a world leading Leeds Commission on climate change”, he said.

Launching in 2017, Gouldson has been working with others to quietly build a coalition of key stakeholders in the city to maintain momentum on climate change. The committee will draw together the large energy users in the city, including the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University, the NHS, Leeds City Council and private sector players such as Yorkshire Water, Arup, Veolia and Northern Gas Networks.

“The aim is to have an independent committee that will advise, support, encourage and hold to account the city — not the council — as it makes the transition to a sustainable, low carbon and carbon resilient economy”, Professor Gouldson added.

The newly elected MP for Leeds North West Alex Sobel, who until his election was Executive Member for Climate Change for the city, agrees; “The challenge we face in making this transition can only be tackled in collaboration with others. Having an independent climate committee with the research knowledge and experience to bring best practice from other parts of the world to this city can only speed the journey to a low carbon economy.”

For Gouldson it is all about impact: “Academics tend to think that 95% of their work is the research and what little is left is for engagement and communication,” he said. “Our approach is very different. We involve the cities we study in the life of the research so they are more likely to take ownership of the results. This can be uncomfortable and time consuming for an academic. Life would be easier — and we could have published a lot more papers — if we had done it the traditional way. But we want our work to have an impact in the real world and in climate change we have to make that impact quickly otherwise we are all in serious trouble.”

Bristol - the green capital of Europe

When Bristol was awarded European Green Capital status in 2015 its Mayor was invited to attend the Paris climate change summit. In preparation for this, the city called on Professor Gouldson and his team to provide the evidence upon which their bold carbon reduction strategy could be based. The team also looked at how Bristol was performing when the carbon embedded in the goods and services consumed in the city was taken into account.

“This was a real innovation and something we are keen to do more of,” says Gouldson. “Once you go beyond a production-based model and look at consumption the picture changes dramatically. In the case of Bristol, we found that consumption-based emissions were three times bigger than its territorial emissions. If this is typical of other cities it means that most will be blind to two thirds of their emissions.”

By conducting both a production and a consumption-based analysis, Gouldson and his team also came up with another remarkable finding. They discovered that food waste in the city contributed a hugely significant proportion to the consumption-based side of the equation. For Gouldson this means the council now has a choice: “Either it can spend around £3 billion retrofitting all its houses and upgrading its transport, which is the territorial stuff, or it could cut food waste in half, because so much of the city’s wider carbon footprint is based on food and so much is wasted.”

He added: “At this stage we don’t know how this could be done or exactly what it would cost, but it would presumably be much cheaper, much quicker and more carbon effective, than having to replace the entire public transport system or upgrade houses.”

The research for Bristol, was carried out with key members of the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, especially Andrew Sudmant and Joel Millward- Hopkins, and provides insights into how local mitigation strategies can address the substantial, and rapidly growing, issue of urban carbon emissions.

Find out more about our research into cities

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