On 5 June, World Environment Day, city mayors from five continents are meeting in San Francisco to push their environmental agenda. They plan to sign up to a set of 21 "urban environmental accords" covering energy, waste reduction, urban design and other goals, complete with a scorecard to measure their progress (see "City targets"). "Municipal governments have the power to shape the future of the world's environment," says Jared Blumenfeld, environmental director for San Francisco, which has signed up to the accords.
Last month, in the boldest repudiation of a national government yet, a group of American mayors swept aside the Bush administration's refusal to cut carbon emissions. The mayors, who represent 32 million Americans, pledged that their cities would meet Kyoto Protocol guidelines of a 7 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions.
The revolt began in January, when Seattle's Greg Nickels, in his "state of the city" address, asked: "If the federal government is not going to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, why can't we just do it at the local level?" The response was overwhelming. Denver, Los Angeles, New York and more than 140 other American cities have signed up to the Kyoto targets.
Cities and states in the north-eastern US will meet in New York next week to discuss a scheme to cap CO2 emissions from power plants while allowing those that have cleaned up their act to sell entitlements to those that have not. "To begin with, it will regulate emissions on large power producers, but the plan is that it will evolve to encompass other sectors," says veteran climate campaigner Adam Markham, who now heads the pressure group Clean Air-Cool Planet in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Markham believes this could become a national model and eventually allow the US to rejoin the Kyoto process. The cities' task is easier, he says, because many large corporations believe that carbon controls are inevitable in the long run, and want to get ahead of the game.
"Cities can do a great deal on their own," Markham says. They can provide incentives for investing in renewable energy and building greener buildings. They can design their urban environments to be more energy efficient, build mass-transit systems, curb the use of cars, and provide incentives for power companies to switch fuels.
So far, however, cities' track record has been spotty. As long ago as 1989, the world's climate scientists called for a 20 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from industrialised countries by 2005. No nation adopted that target, but some municipalities- including Toronto- did. Yet not even Toronto has been able to buck the Canadian trend of rising emissions, even though the city has cut emissions from its own facilities by 42 per cent.
The city is now taking steps that it believes will, at last, lead to a cut in overall emissions. It is, for instance, using cold water from deep in Lake Ontario to cool its buildings in summer, saving up to 90 per cent on electricity compared with conventional air-conditioning systems. It has also established an Atmosphere Fund to support local investment in energy efficiency and renewables. Phil Jessup, who heads the fund, was in London last month helping the city's mayor, Ken Livingstone, draw up a similar initiative. Livingstone has said he wants every large new building in London to be equipped with solar panels.
"Toronto is undoubtedly the greenest city in North America," says Markham. "But big US cities like Seattle, Austin in Texas, Portland in Oregon and Salt Lake City have all launched big climate initiatives, and they are starting to make the White House very nervous. Not every mayor that signs the Seattle Kyoto pledge is going to be able to deliver, but a huge amount is happening on the ground at municipal level now."
Perhaps the nearest thing to the model "green city" is Curitiba in Brazil. To transform this city of 1.6 million people, architect-turned-mayor Jaime Lerner turned to buses. Faced with a fast-rising population, worsening air pollution and imminent gridlock, he turned the tide against the car by pedestrianising the city centre and turning several key highways into the centre into bus-only roads.
He followed up by planting millions of trees, digging ponds in the city's parks to absorb worsening floods, and recruiting the city's poor to recycle two-thirds of its garbage by offering groceries and bus passes in return for bags of rubbish. It was a social as well as an environmental revolution, and it has led Curitiba to be hailed as "the greenest city in the world."
But people were already saying that at the Earth Summit in Rio 13 years ago, and still no new contenders for the title have emerged. Certainly, nowhere has got close yet to the ultimate goal of a zero-pollution city. It is hard even to judge which cities are doing well. But the urban environmental accords being signed this week in San Francisco will establish a baseline for the first time. "Of course they could be saved a lot of work if there were national standards and national, legally enforceable, limits on emissions," Markham says. Cities can hand out carrots, but usually only central government has the big stick. "Eventually national leadership becomes absolutely necessary."
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THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE ISSUE: 4 JUNE 2005
Written by Fred Pearce