#ClimateStrike, Cities and CO2 – Are current city targets enough to really reduce emissions?

It was the night before #ClimateStrike, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except me, as I struggled with masking tape, cardboard and markers trying to think of something really good to put on my sign for the rally in Helsinki.

As a Mexican wave of Climate Strike protests sweeps the globe, it is clear that the truth-telling younger generations are fed up with the fact that we are not ‘doing enough’ and are rightfully demanding meaningful action on climate change. But what is ‘meaningful action’ and what is ‘enough’?

Finland hit the headlines earlier this year after pledging to go carbon neutral by 2035. This reflects similar zero-carbon targets and timeframes set for cities across Finland. Cities are key intervention points for climate action. Globally, cities are responsible for around 70% of global carbon emissions. They are also extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, due to their population density, structure and complex interconnections. With more than 50% of the global population now living in urban areas, many say that the war on climate change will be won or lost in cities.

On the surface zero-carbon targets for cities in Finland look admirable, but although it is a step in the right direction, it may not actually be ‘doing enough’ to really reduce emissions. It all comes down to how the carbon emissions are measured.

Carbon neutrality or zero net carbon means that the sum of emissions produced and offset equals zero. Most cities in Finland and other developed countries can’t get the emissions they produce down to absolute zero, so most include some kind of carbon offsetting in their zero carbon plans. This would be fine, except for the fact that the emissions being produced and offset don’t represent all the emissions that each city truly generates.

Most cities in Finland and abroad calculate their carbon footprint according to ‘production based’ emissions. Production-based accounting estimates greenhouse gas emissions occurring within a geographically defined area, regardless of where the output is consumed. These are referred to as direct or Scope 1 GHG emissions according to the GHG protocol. The types of emissions in cities that would be counted using this calculation method would include things like emissions from vehicle exhaust and the burning of fossil fuels for heating that occur within city boundaries. Often, cities will also include Scope 2 emissions, which represent greenhouse gas emissions generated from the purchased electricity in their city area.

In reality though, the carbon footprints of cities stretch much further than city boundaries. Emissions are generated producing and transporting the food we eat, the goods we buy and in the disposal of our waste. These are known as ‘indirect’ or ‘Scope 3’ emissions and very few cities include them in their carbon footprinting calculations. This is partly because the processes that generate them are outside the control of cities and also because of a lack of available data makes it difficult for cities to do the ‘consumption-based’ accounting required to estimate these emissions.

Not including them, however, could be disastrous for our climate change mitigation efforts. Studies of the emissions footprints of other cities have shown that indirect emissions from goods and services are equivalent to direct emissions. If we don’t consider them in our mitigation efforts, then we may only be addressing half the problem.

Ignoring them also distorts the responsibility of different populations for generating greenhouse gases and diverts attention and blame from the high consumption lifestyles that drive unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions. In practice, it also means that collectively we may fail to identify the areas in which interventions are required to reduce emissions, by focusing attention on only a limited part of a much bigger complex system.

So while cities are vulnerable to climate change impacts due to their density and interconnectedness, it is these characteristics that make them important centres for fostering new social and technical innovations. Similarly, while their carbon footprint extends beyond their boundaries, so too does their cultural and economic influence. Decisions made by residents and city governments have the potential to have broad impacts outside the cities themselves.

So when we take it to the streets tomorrow, we need to push our city leaders outside their boundaries to look at a bigger picture. Current city emission calculations are only the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg in terms of our true mitigation challenge. Meaningful action on climate change means addressing the whole problem, not just half of it, and cities have a leading role to play.

Seona Candy @seonacandy is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Urban and Regional Studies. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she has research experience and interest in sustainable food and urban systems analysis and transdisciplinary futures research. She uses both quantitiave and qualitative methods, particularly scenario development and modelling. As part of her role with Urbaria, she will be working with city partners in the Helsinki Capital region to co-develop research projects relating to peri-urban land use issues and their connection with food systems, zero-carbon strategies and resilience.