A researcher at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development argues in a journal article published on Friday that many city residents actually pollute less than families in rural areas.
“People who live in the suburbs or commute actually have much higher greenhouse gas emissions per person than people living in (the London district of) Chelsea for the same income level,” David Satterthwaite told Reuters.
That’s because country-dwellers tend to have larger homes that need to be heated or cooled and higher car use per household.
The study in the journal Environment and Urbanization says cities are often blamed for producing most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions but actually generate just two-fifths or less.
Satterthwaite argues that cities in wealthy nations can set an example for low carbon living by providing good public transport and energy-efficient buildings. He singles out Barcelona – which has a third of Spain’s average emissions per person – and other historic compact cities like Amsterdam which are easy to walk around.
Culture is also an ally in the fight against climate change. “There’s so much in London or Paris that isn’t high greenhouse gas-emitting: the culture, the art, the buildings, the theatre, the music, the museums, the libraries,” Satterthwaite said.
But while cities are often unfairly blamed for producing 75 to 80 percent of the world’s greenhous gas emissions, their responsibility creeps back up when you look at it from a consumption perspective.
Satterthwaite believes it would be fairer to allocate greenhouse gas emissions according to the location of the people who consume the goods and services responsible for the emissions rather than to the place they are produced.
So if you live in Berlin and buy a Chinese-made T-shirt or digital camera, the emissions caused by the manufacturing process would go into your city’s pot, not Guangzhou’s.
On this measure, Satterthwaite estimates city emissions would account for between 60 and 70 percent of the global total. Breaking that down, richer cities would be the clear culprits.
Some parts of poor cities – like the inner-city settlement of Dharavi in Mumbai where 600,000 people live and work crammed into an area around 2 km square – might even have a negative tally, especially if they’re home to poor people who survive by reclaiming and recycling waste.
“Allocating emissions to consumers rather than producers shows that the problem is not cities but a minority of the world’s population with high-consumption lifestyles,” Satterthwaite said.
“But I can see the huge – or probably impossible – political difficulties of getting that accepted, if suddenly the responsibility of the rich world goes up even further,” he admitted.
What do you think? How could your city cut its carbon emissions? Should we measure emissions from the perspective of production or consumption?