Wanted: Asian Cities to Combat Climate Change

Wanted: Asian Cities to Combat Climate Change

May 20, 2013

Whenever my boss gives a speech about the environment, his go-to story is about the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference. There, he fondly recalls, “all the Presidents were running to the back of the room while the Mayors elbowed their way to the front!” His philosophy on climate change is that cities have to lead the way, and they have both the capability and motivation to do so.


I think I agree with both prongs—capability and motivation—of that argument, but execution is a lot less simple than it sounds. True, two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions are “owned” by cities (more on ownership later), which occupy just 2% of the world’s land area; the LA experience has also taught me that a city’s actions can substantially reduce its emissions, more so than state or federal policies. And Mayors are an intensely competitive breed—we in LA work our longest hours on days when Mayor Bloomberg or Emanuel unveils a new initiative. This all sounds good in theory, but real progress on climate change will depend on our ability to infuse Chinese and Indian cities with the same spirit of competition.












Source: US Energy Information Administration,2011 International Energy Outlook


China and India are first and third place, respectively, in global greenhouse gas emissions, but the scary bit is their rate of growth, shown in the graphic above (for reference, the second-place emitter, the US, has a growth rate of 0.3%/year).That rise is driven by the sheer quantity of urban population growth. In India, greenhouse gas emissions are over an order of magnitude lower, per capita, than in the US; but the US has just nine cities with a million people, and India has over 50. We need to focus on giving these unfamiliar, second-tier cities a model and technical assistance for delivering clean electricity and controlling industrial emissions (the two largest urban sources of Indian emissions.)


These grim indicators contextualize our work in Los Angeles. We’re intensely proud to have quadrupled the amount of renewable energy in the city—by the end of the decade, one third of our electricity will come from renewable sources like solar, wind, and geothermal.  Our long vilified utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power of Chinatown fame, now has the most ambitious CO2 reduction target in the nation (60% by 2025). And in March, Al Gore headlined our announcement to end coal power and commended our Mayor on transforming LA into one of the “five greatest cities in the world where combating global warming is concerned.” The problem is all five of those cities are in North America or Europe.


LA is responsible for 0.04% of global emissions. That means none of our emission reduction efforts really matter unless there is some multiplier effect from inspiring global cities to follow suit. There is an organization, the C40 (formerly Clinton Climate Initiative), that has undertaken the tremendous task of best-practice sharing and emissions accounting for megacities around the world. While they do fantastic work, the fundamental responsibility lies with cities like Los Angeles and New York, who have a demonstrated record and the resources to share their story, to support Delhi and Beijing, Mumbai and Shanghai.


Here are some concrete ways we can help:

  1. 1.      Assist with emissions accounting. This is where good policy starts—without good measurement methodology and a baseline to improve upon, cities are drawn to flashy projects at the expense of a comprehensive emission reduction plan. This stuff can be confusing too—for example, who “owns” the tailpipe emissions of an airplane flight to or from your airport? We and organizations like C40 or the Carbon Disclosure Project have worked on these issues, and it’s imperative that we take the time to explain it to our counterparts in poorer cities.


  1. 2.      Dedicate personnel to international outreach. Western cities can afford this, and it reflects the crucial point that green Western cities are really only useful to combating climate change insofar as they pave the road to sustainability for others.



  1. 3.      Broaden the circle of dialogue. In my experience, international best practice sharing consists of London jabbering to Los Angeles about efficiency audits, Toronto lecturing Tokyo on solar incentives, and Melbourne and Mexico City going at it (none of us can understand either of them). The rest of Asia is conspicuously absent on the conference calls and webinars, but it falls to us to pique their interest. There’s a tremendous opportunity we’re missing—as India struggles to integrate massive amounts of solar in their grid, LA has already learned the hard lessons of compensating for intermittency, etc.


The prospect of cities short circuiting international treaties and solving global warming through an organic, ‘grassroots’ campaign is tantalizing. Many of you may have been surprised to see Mayor Villaraigosa at the Indiaspora Inaugural Ball—trust me, he caught me off guard too with his fashionably late entrance. But when the crowd cheered in response to “You all look just like me!” I think he was onto something very profound. Asian and Western cities can look very similar when it comes to retrofitting buildings, replacing power plants, and redesigning cars—it’s on us to make that a reality.