Cities need to change for people to thrive amid a changing climate

Source: Green Biz

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In the 21st century, a seemingly global prosperity masks an unequal distribution of benefits. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world’s cities, where extreme wealth can exist next door to concentrated poverty. In some cities, such as those in South Africa, well-meaning policies and investments in transit and housing actually have deepened the inequality and segregation experienced by low-income communities.

How does climate change fit into this picture? Leading urban experts think that the current path of cities far exceeds planetary boundaries of what is sustainable. In turn, climate change, one result of carbon-fueled growth over the last two centuries, is also a driver of urban inequality.

By 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people could be living in cities. As more people move to cities, they face rising housing prices, unequal access to employment opportunities and public amenities, and they also contend with the weather extremes of a changing climate. The result is deeply unfair: those who have contributed and benefited least from carbon-fueled growth are its frontline victims. Low-income groups are disproportionately affected, as they are more likely to live in less robust homes and be in the path of natural hazards such as floods and heat waves — not to mention, they have fewer resources available to respond when disaster does strike.

Projections by the world’s leading scientists say future cities need to have a near-zero-carbon footprint, eliminate their reliance on fossil fuels and be able to manage weather extremes such as heavy rains and heat waves. They also need to find ways to lift up already vulnerable and marginalized groups. What does this future city look like? Sadly, our collective imagination is failing us.

Brave new worlds

As we begin the most important decade for climate action yet, cities need to tackle climate change and the continued growth and stubborn persistence of urban inequality (PDF) together. This is a major, immediate and unprecedented transformation, changing almost everything about the way we live in, build and power our cities. We must do it in ways that don’t exacerbate existing inequalities and find ways to leave no one behind. And we need to do it fast.

There are plenty of pop culture tropes of a dystopian future, ravaged by climate change. As Hollywood’s new supervillain, climate change is a common apocalyptic backdrop in science fiction. And there is good reason, as destructive bushfires, floods and heat waves are no longer just the stuff of fiction.

There are far fewer sunny versions of what cities of the future might be like. We do find stories about optimistic, technology-driven lives enhanced by automation in the renderings of architecture studios and engineering firms, cities where the sky is always blue. And we are nudged to imagine ourselves living in glass-and-steel high-rises covered with plant life or solar panels, delivered by self-driving cars, and directed by artificial intelligence.

While these may seem appealing solutions, the sanitized version of the city they portray is difficult to reconcile with the much messier reality of most cities across the globe. More than 1.2 billion people (PDF) — one in three people in cities — live in informal settlements today. Have we solved their plight in this gleaming future?

Often left underexamined in fiction and life is the close relationship between climate change and inclusiveness. But they are interrelated challenges that must be tackled together. If not, fundamental problems around access, informality and affordability remain unaddressed. The sustainability of one “smart city,” for example, can entail environmental degradation and social exploitation in another part of the world, as is the case with the mining of raw materials that go into making smart sensors, or the labor practices employed in the construction of some new eco-cities.

Sparking inspiration

Ideas can be powerful drivers of transformation, but few mainstream storylines about living with climate change offer inspiration for what the future might look like and how we will get there. A lack of vision hinders our capacity for urban change. We need more approaches that lie somewhere between the noir dystopias and blue-sky renderings and help broaden the outlook on what it means to live and thrive in a climate-changed future city.

Insiders in the urban field have recognized this problem for a while. Negative trends, such as increasing air pollution, rising living costs, traffic congestion and inequality, indicate a widening implementation gap between what’s happening on the ground and ambitious commitments made at international levels, such as the Paris Agreement, the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. While there is widespread agreement that radical transformations are needed, numerous studies find little evidence of radical changes actually happening in cities. Experts think this is because cities are complex systems and urbanization cannot be easily steered.

That’s why the WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities is focusing this year on inviting submissions from initiatives that show how to live and thrive in a changing world by tackling both the climate crisis and urban inequality together. Through this global award, which celebrates transformative urban change, we will identify the leaders in urban transformation and amplify lessons learned so other cities can follow their lead.

The 2020-2021 Prize for Cities theme recognizes the year and decade ahead as pivotal for global climate action and seeks to help bridge the gap between fiction and reality and grow a much-needed repertoire of credible urban interventions and projects. As in its inaugural cycle, which received almost 200 submissions from across the globe, we hope the prize will broaden our understanding of what positive urban transformation looks like, how it comes about and how we can identify and nurture the seeds of change.

Carbon markets get real on removal

 Pine forest from above, fall season, forest road

Trey Hill’s family has been working the land around Rock Hall, Maryland, since the early 1900s. Their company, Harborview Farms, now harvests corn, wheat and soy from thousands of acres. But something is different this year. The Hill family has a new crop: sequestered carbon, which they sell to individuals and companies across the United States.

Hill is doing his carbon farming in partnership with Nori, a Seattle-based startup that sells what it calls “carbon removals.” Hill deploys regenerative agriculture techniques, such as the use of cover crops, to draw carbon dioxide from the air and lock it into the soils he works. Nori then helps Hill verify the amount of carbon that he has removed from the atmosphere and sell the associated credit as a carbon offset. For $15, anyone can now fund Hill — and soon, many other farmers — to remove one ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. (For comparison, a round-trip economy-class flight between San Francisco and London generates around a ton of CO2, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization).

The idea that companies can shrink their carbon footprints by paying other organizations to reduce greenhouse emissions is around two decades old. But Nori represents several game-changing trends, including the use of new technologies and an emphasis on removing CO2 from the atmosphere rather than reducing emissions. Together with the arrival of new buyers, most notably from the aviation industry, these trends will bring major changes to the market for carbon offsets in 2020 and beyond.

Until now, the bulk of the spending on offsets has gone to projects that avoid emissions. Some companies work with conservation organizations to prevent deforestation, for example. Others fund the development of renewable projects that displace fossil-fuel plants. This work remains essential, but recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have made it clear that emissions reductions alone are not enough — we also need to remove billions of tons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere if we’re to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

In anticipation of future demand for removal offsets, Nori has built a digital marketplace that connects buyers with projects that draw down and store CO2, starting with a focus on farmers using regenerative agriculture to increase levels of soil carbon. Another new marketplace, developed by the Finnish company Puro, is offering removal credits linked to the production of biochar (a charcoal-like substance used to safely store carbon) and construction materials made in part from greenhouse gases.

The arrival of these marketplaces looks to be well-timed, because a few first-mover companies have already announced plans to invest significant amounts in carbon removal. Last August, payment services company Stripe committed to investing at least $1 million a year in carbon sequestration projects. A month later, Shopify, which develops e-commerce software, matched that target and declared that it would focus on industrial-scale solutions that involve capturing CO2 from the  air and storing it deep underground. “Our goal is to kickstart the demand and predictability of this market so industrial engineering can scale and the price can come down,” says Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke.

When Stripe and Shopify make their investments in carbon removal, they will have the option of working with Nori, Puro and other more established offsets sellers, such as Natural Capital Partners. Many of these firms are likely to see a surge in business as the demand for offsets of all kinds increases.

In 2018, the market for voluntary offsets more than doubled in size to 98 million tons, according to Ecosystem Marketplace, which collects data on market-based approaches to conserving ecosystem services. “In the past decade, a good year was always old companies doing new buying,” says Steve Zwick, the publication’s managing editor. Now major new buyers are entering the market. Companies are learning they can’t reduce emissions as deeply as they want to, and so are investing in offsets as well as reduction, explains Zwick.

One significant new buyer is Shell, which in 2019 committed to spending $300 million on forestry projects and other nature-based solutions over the next three years, in part to offset some of the emissions produced by the aviation fuel it sells in Britain and the Netherlands. Airlines will also likely be buying large quantities of offsets in coming years. British Airways and Air France have committed to offsetting 100 percent of emissions from their domestic flights starting this year.

And the industry as a whole has committed to capping emissions from international flights at current levels, which is forecast to require purchases of around 150 million tons a year by 2025.

Any company purchasing an offset should be asking hard questions about the ability of the project to reduce emissions. Offsets are sometimes criticized as unreliable, a complaint that surfaced again recently after an investigation by ProPublica into one class of offsets — forest-protection projects — concluded that polluters often “got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO2, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.” Proponents of forestry projects noted that while ProPublica highlighted real problems, it also ignored known solutions to those problems. Nevertheless, the reputation of offsets probably took a knock.

It will always be challenging to plant and protect forests in remote areas of the world, particularly in regions of political instability. But another trend may help matters. Over the past few years, the resolution and coverage of satellite imagery have improved while prices have fallen. These changes make it possible to monitor forests at a new level of accuracy.

“You can identify someone who’s cutting down a tree with one day of notice,” Diego Saez-Gil, an entrepreneur working in this space, told Fast Company. Saez-Gil’s startup, Pachama, combines data from satellites, drones and a laser-scanning technology known as lidar with machine learning to create a dashboard that estimates the amount of carbon stored in a forest.

The emergence of these technologies suggests that the market for offsets is going to grow both in size and impact. At a time when the governments of the world’s two largest emitters, the United States and China, are failing to recognize the magnitude of the climate crisis, that’s a welcome piece of good news — and a great example of how the private sector can help fill the gulf left by government inaction.