Cities Are Tackling Climate Change by Freeing Their Data

The world's cities generate 75 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, but there's growing momentum to make them the focus of climate action by making emissions data available for all.

Over the last several years, as national governments have often been slow to action, those seeking to reduce CO2 emissions and implement clean energy programs have found themselves focusing on just one word: Cities.

Despite covering just one percent of the world's surface, cities generate 80 percent of global economic output and account for about two-thirds of the planet's energy consumption and 75 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on one's perspective, that either makes cities a large part of the problem or a big part of the solution - or both.

Writing in The Guardian ahead of the 2015 Paris climate summit, Dmitri Zenghelis and Nicholas Stern observed that cities "afford multiple opportunities to dramatically reduce carbon emissions while sustaining prosperous standards of living. Indeed, there is no hope of reducing global emissions to safe levels if new and expanding cities are based on a sprawling, resource-intensive model of urban development."

Following Donald Trump's inauguration as U.S. president and his administration's evident disdain for climate science, columns and op-eds have variously noted that "cities are central to any serious plan to tackle climate change," and, more emphatically, that they are "the only hope for climate change action."

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Many cities are rising to the challenge. More than 400 have so far signed on to the Compact of Mayors, a coalition of city leaders that "establishes a common platform to capture the impact of cities' collective actions through standardized measurement of emissions and climate risk, and consistent, public reporting of their efforts." And over 500 cities worldwide are measuring and disclosing their environmental data through a cities program managed by the organization CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), "measuring and disclosing environmental data on an annual basis in order to manage emissions, build resilience, and protect themselves from the growing impacts of climate change."

CDP is hosting webinars on Feb. 8 and Feb. 15 to walk city managers through the whys and hows of participating in the program, which has been underway for several years. According to Lance Pierce, president of CDP North America, the number of cities disclosing information has increased by 70 percent since the adoption of the Paris climate agreement.

"I think what we've been surprised by is the appetite for participating in this that cities have shown," he told Seeker. "It might seem that cities are the units of government that have the least resources. You might think that they might not have the incentives to participate in this kind of disclosure of this kind of information, but there's been tremendous appetite. Cities are the unit of government on the front line of service delivery to their citizens. And the benefit of taking action on these issues can be translated back into benefits for people who live in the cities. So city governments are always interested in their ability to deliver a better service."

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The program allows residents of those cities to check up on how their municipal leaders are doing.

"We have an open data portal on our website that is the repository for our cities data," said Pierce. "You can look at it through a variety of lenses. You can parse it in several ways, and you can take a look at how well your city and other cities in other countries are stacking up vis a vis their performance on these issues."

In an increasingly polarized political climate, it's encouraging to note that the cities that are reporting to CDP - particularly in North America - have elected governments that are across the political spectrum.

"It's not just New York and San Francisco, where you might stereotypically expect this kind of response," Pierce noted. "And investors, companies and their supply chains are increasingly showing interest in connecting with the cities reporting through CDP, so there's kind of a shared movement developing to really look at shared ways of tackling common problems and finding common opportunities to provide solutions."

As the scientific community braces itself against the prospect of climate research being stymied and removed from public view under the new administration, the increasing transparency of data at the municipal level is a welcome silver lining.

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