December 5th, 2012
12:22 PM ET

Cities key to beating climate change

By David Burwell & Shin-pei Tsay, Special to CNN

Editor's note: David Burwell is the director of the energy and climate program and Shin-pei Tsay is director of cities transportation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.The views expressed are their own.

International climate change negotiations underway in Doha urgently need to find a path out of the climate change quagmire. The 2009 global climate conference in Copenhagen achieved consensus on one key point – that world average surface temperature could not rise more than two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels without risking catastrophic climate impacts. The truth is, the world has already gone past this, and the only hope is for cities to support global efforts.

This meteorological line in the sand of two degrees Celsius equates to 450 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and has been reaffirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And the International Energy Agency warns that global capital investment in new energy assets must make a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels in the next five years to have any chance of hitting the target.

But it is time to face reality – the world has crossed this meteorological line in the sand. The World Meteorological Organization says all greenhouse gases have increased the warming effect by 30 percent since 1990. To make matters worse, as the planet heats up, it becomes hotter, faster.

New studies illustrate the seemingly impossible barriers that must be scaled in order to temper runaway global warming effect. PricewaterhouseCoopers concludes that in order to stay below the threshold through 2050, global energy efficiency would have to improve by a factor of seven each year.

More from CNN: Trying to agree a Kyoto 2.0

Converting the global energy supply chain from fossil to renewable fuels will require a huge investment in new energy infrastructure. A recent Stanford University study says the process of conversion would only yield significant emission reductions in the second half of the 21st century. By then the planet will already be well beyond the global goal.

In spite of the need to fundamentally restructure the world’s energy supply, public policy still favors fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency calculates that global subsidies in fossil fuel development increased by 30 percent in 2011 alone to $523 billion. Except for the United States and the EU (primarily Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Nordic countries), carbon emissions from burning fuel are going up, not down. Coal remained the fuel of choice in the first decade of this century – its best decade ever.

Finally, even if the negotiators were to maintain current global commitments, policies fall short. If all 192 countries that signed the Copenhagen Accords met their individual pledges to reduce fossil fuel consumption by 2035, they would only reduce global dependence on fossil fuels to 75 percent (down from 82 percent today). But the International Energy Agency calculates that this number must fall to 62 percent to stay below 450 parts per million.

These barriers suggest that the present policy paradigm of national and international action doesn’t work – it offers few avenues of escape from a vastly warmer world. But there is hope if international and national policy is supplemented by regional and city actions that leverage deep cultural and demographic transformations already underway.

More from CNN: Energy revolution transforms climate debate

Market and demographic shifts are changing how (and how much) people travel, where they work, and how they live. The global urban population is exploding and 70 percent to 80 percent of global energy consumption occurs in urban areas. In fact, the countries where carbon emissions are declining all have populations that are more than 80 percent urban (notably Nordic countries).

By empowering cities, new pathways to a decarbonized world open up. Thousands of cities are currently implementing or experimenting with local carbon reduction strategies. Strategies contain public transit and bike-share programs, zero carbon mixed-use developments, and climate action plans that cover many sectors including buildings, transportation, food and waste systems, and natural environments. New cities about to bloom in Africa and Asia now have a playbook of opportunities to leapfrog carbon-intensive development and pursue low-carbon futures.

Rapid global urbanization also leads to changed behavior that can help. Trends in social networking, collective consumption, and peer-to-peer networks, suggest changing demographics and lifestyles. And compact land use development with energy-efficient buildings and better walking and biking infrastructure are not dependent on energy-efficient technologies while also enhancing behavioral shifts. In fact, Peter Calthorpe, an architect who has contributed to long-term climate change plans, suggests that urbanist principles could make up for more than 50 percent of the carbon reduction needed to stay under a two degrees Celsius rise.

It will be much hotter no matter what. But when crafting national and international energy policy, leaders around the world will benefit from examining the places where changes in behavior and consumption patterns – and decarbonization – are already occurring. Increasingly, the winning battles are taking place within the world’s cities.

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Topics: Climate • Environment

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    Their is no such thing called, climate change. But, there are such things... behind it.
    Any clue?

    December 5, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  2. Robin Crites

    We need more specific estimates of what the disaster will look like. Is there a 50% chance that the high temperatures in St Louis, Missouri will reach 120 degrees by 2015 and cause the death of 1 person in a thousand if nothing is done. If we cut carbon emissions by 10% by that time will the chance of such temperatures decrease to 15%? Don't just tell us it will be bad, but tell us what ways it will be and how bad. We can deal with that and authorize our politicians to act.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  3. Diane Lathrop

    It just kills me that while the planet literally burns, the US media, including CNN, are focused almost solely on the so-called fiscal cliff. This topic and how it all turns out is meaningless when compared to the prospect of Earth, and most of life as we know it, being snuffed out by out-of-control heat, rising waters, huge storms, uncontrollable wild fires and on and on. Even though extreme weather just this past year, including a severe drought and Hurricane Sandy, has struck quite forcefully and obviously right here at home, leading Americans to perhaps be open to hearing the science and the necessary drastic changes to head off this Armageddon, the media are largely silent on this crucial issue. Why is the press not capitalizing on this moment, but instead ignoring the whole thing? And why are the US and the EU pushing for "voluntary" measures, in opposition to any meaningful agreement? The whole thing is the height of insanity, and I am just completely baffled. World gone mad!

    December 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  4. William Holder

    The climate changes all the time and we have to adapt. Given there has been no warming in 16 years, it's past time we focus on that adaptation and less on our CO2 emissions which increasingly appear to be unrelated to any change.
    Satellites and computers allow us to more precisely measure the impact of a warmer climate on our planet, but we shouldn't be alarmed by the changes we see. We shouldn't behave like primitive peoples assigning fanciful reasons for changes in weather or climate and believing we can create a desired outcome through some kind of behaviour or sacrifice.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    I think its past the time for talking on measures to stop global warming and carbon emmission. The past year, 2012 already showed those with foresight that a different geography will be necessary in not so far a future. Some clever and planning states might have already started investing in this new area of long-term investment. While the common falks still discuss how right their forecasts have proven.

    December 7, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  6. Kaj Embren

    Good Night Doha and Wake Up

    Why should we give any hope to national goverment to succeed in a deal on Climate Change. National goverments have proven that they do not have what is required to meet the global challenges of climate change and the unsustainable use of our planets resources. Read a new report of cities network and more at

    December 8, 2012 at 4:18 am | Reply

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