Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

In Dealing with Climate Change, Cities the Right Place to Start




An aerial view of buildings standing out amid haze engulfing Wuhan, central China's Hubei province on Dec. 3, 2009. China will need to invest up to 30 billion dollars a year to meet its goal of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the state press said, citing an academic study. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

An aerial view of buildings standing out amid haze engulfing Wuhan, central China's Hubei province on Dec. 3, 2009. China will need to invest up to 30 billion dollars a year to meet its goal of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the state press said, citing an academic study. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, we asked our Sustainability Roundtable to reflect on last week's C40 Cities climate leadership group meeting in Brazil, where the World Bank signed an agreement with mayors from around the world to provide significant technical and financial assistance for climate-change-reduction projects. Are cities in the right position to manage the effects of climate change?

What does this new partnership mean for the future of global climate change agreements? Can a series of less ambitious initiatives such as this compensate for the failure to establish a binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Peter Timmer is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development and was Principal Advisor to the Asia Society Task Force on Food Security. Now retired from teaching, he is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Development Studies, emeritus, at Harvard University.

Economists are used to thinking in a "second best" world, where our theoretically optimal solutions to a problem are not politically, institutionally, or culturally feasible. Let's assume we are not going to get a binding, global carbon tax in the foreseeable future. What might be other ways "second best" to get at the objective of limiting greenhouse emissions, with the hope of curtailing climate change?

My sense is that cities are exactly the right place to start. By their very nature, cities require far more cooperation among citizens in order to have a smoothly functioning community and economy. Cities are used to solving collective action problems, and citizens are used to paying the price of those solutions. Climate change is just the latest in a long series of problems that cities need to cope with, and mayors are learning that their citizens actually want solutions. The mayors of cities tend to be among the most responsive of all politicians.

Can cities make a difference? Of course they can. More than half the world's population lives in urban areas, and cities are demonstably more efficient in the use of energy than suburbs or rural areas, especially for heating, cooling and transportation. The future of reduced emissions per capita has to lie in cities, and most mayors are already planning how to do it.

So the C40 Cities meeting, and the significant encouragement from the World Bank, strike me as the most positive steps we have had for some time in actually coming to grips with the problem of climate change.

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