New Report Finds that a Transition to Low-carbon Cities Could Save US$17-22 Trillion Dollars

Hi folks, this is Graham Pickren, new faculty member in Sustainability Studies here at Roosevelt University.  I’ve just joined the program after completing my PhD in geography at the University of Georgia as well as a postdoc at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.  I’m excited to be here!  I’ll be blogging here regularly and am looking forward to being a part of the conversation about sustainability issues in Chicago, the Midwest, and beyond.  I have a wide range of interests, including urban geography, urban political ecology (I’ll be blogging about what that is in future posts), and debates about transitions to some kind of alternative, ‘green’ economy.

Towards keeping that conversation going, I’m sharing some good news from the Guardian this week, where they covered a new report from the Global Commission on Energy and Climate that analyzed the cost savings that accrue from cities making investments in better infrastructure, waste management, public transit, and green buildings.  All told, the report finds cities can save $17-22 TRILLION dollars while avoiding the equivalent of 3.7 gigatonnes of carbon emissions a year, which is more than India’s current total emissions.  The real kicker from the Guardian article is this quote:

The finding upends the notion that it is too expensive to do anything about climate change – or that such efforts would make little real difference. Not true, said the researchers.

Specifically, the report cites a few successful projects from around the world that demonstrate the wisdom of placing cities at the forefront of building more resilient (and resourceful) communities:

  • Bus Rapid Transit: The economic returns of Johannesburg’s Bus Rapid Transit system in its first phase were close to US$900 million.
  • Building efficiency: Singapore’s “Green Mark” program, for instance, which aims to cover 80% of its buildings by 2030, could see a reduction in building electricity use of 22% and net economic savings of over US$400 million.
  • Cycling: Copenhagen’s planned Cycle Super Highways are estimated to have an internal rate of return on investment of 19% per year.

“Cyclists at red 2” by heb@Wikimedia Commons

One of the real stumbling blocks for significant action on climate change has always been the incorrect notion that transitioning to low-carbon futures is simply too expensive to be pursued.  Politicians can easily hide behind these kinds of statements, but politicians also think in terms of dollars and cents (votes too?).  For better or worse (I’m leading towards worse…), economists have the ear of our political leaders here in the US and elsewhere.  So studies like this one provide real ammunition for the political fight that these kinds of transitions entail.

Of course, amidst all the good news here, we can still debate the explicit assumption that economic growth as currently understood (increases in GDP) is commensurable with any kind of sustainable future.  Alternatively, notions of ‘degrowth’ have been around for a long time but are starting to game some traction.  A recent issue of the journal Sustainability Science featured a group of articles probing the details of degrowth as a philosophy and practice.  An editorial introducing the special issue on degrowth argues that

“the pathway towards a sustainable future is to be found in a democratic and redistributive downscaling of the biophysical size of the global economy.  In the context of this desired transformation, it becomes imperative to explore ways in which sustainability science can explicitly and effectively address one of the root causes of social and environmental degradation worldwide, namely, the ideology and practice of economic growth.”

There’s a big debate going on here, but for the sake of brevity it’s worth simply stating that there are a number of paradigms at play when we think about transitioning to a more sustainable future.  Whether that future equals conventional economic growth + low-carbon infrastructure or a more radical restructuring of our very notions of sustainability and a good life is something I feel is at the heart of what sustainability studies is all about.  In future posts, I’ll take on this debate more directly, but for now I urge the interested reader to check out the editorial in Sustainability Science for an excellent primer.

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