Chart of the Week: Cities Are More Focused on Mitigating Climate Change than Adapting to It

Andrew Keatts | @Andy_Keatts | December 16, 2015

Image via flickr/Nathan Siemers.

Image via flickr/Nathan Siemers.

Urban areas are responsible for between 30 percent and 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so it’s unsurprising that cities are increasingly taking steps intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But it was only last year that researchers conducted the first large-scale survey of what, exactly, cities are doing to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change.

The study, conducted last year by researcher Alexander Aylett, working with MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, polled more than 700 localities around the world. He received responses from 350 of them.

One of his most significant findings: U.S. cities, relative to those abroad, are clearly more focused on mitigating the effects of climate change rather than adapting to effects that climatologists believe can no longer be avoided.

Image via Alexander Aylett/MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning/ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.

Click for larger view. Image via Alexander Aylett/MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning/ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.

Mitigation policies focus on lowering a city’s overall contribution to climate change. For instance, they may force or encourage home owners to make their houses more energy efficient.

Resiliency or adaptation-focused policies, on the other hand, focus on dealing with certain, already-unavoidable effects of climate change, like making coastal cities more prepared for major hurricanes, or having cities in the American southwest implement water recycling systems to combat worsening drought conditions.

Beyond that, the survey also found that the biggest hurdle facing cities around the world in their climate planning efforts is unsurprisingly simple: money.

Not having enough funding to actually implement needed reforms is a problem for 78 percent of cities that responded to the survey. And 67 percent said they don’t have the money to hire personnel who will work on climate change issues either.

The study also shed light on who, exactly, endorses these plans. “Rather than being seen as active opponents, business and industry are ranked as neutral to slightly positive by the majority of respondents,” Aylett wrote.

Image via Alexander Aylett/MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning/ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.

Click for larger view. Image via Alexander Aylett/MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning/ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.

But Aylett’s survey didn’t just identify trends in how cities were going about dealing with climate change. It found early results on where cities said they were seeing demonstrably emissions reductions, too.

A huge majority of cities said they had made measurable emissions cuts by saving energy at their own buildings, by updating their own vehicle fleets, and by capturing gas at local landfills.

They also reported success at encouraging residents to use public transit more often, cut back on residential energy use, and reduce waste.

But cities had a harder time moving the needle with local businesses and industry, and they especially struggled with getting the freight and shipping industries to cut emissions.

Image via Image via Alexander Aylett/MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning/ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.

Click for larger view. Image via Image via Alexander Aylett/MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning/ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.

Ultimately, Aylett said, that’s the strongest headwind cities are facing when it comes to local efforts to address climate change: the lack of engagement from major economic actors.

“The lack of synergies in this area is the most severe example of a general inability to effectively link mitigation policies to other local development priorities,” Aylett wrote.

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