Cities produce surprisingly low carbon emissions per capita

Greenhouse gas emissions of city dwellers are often far smaller than the national averages, says a study in the April issue of Environment and Urbanization by David Dodman of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Dodman argues that the tendency to identify cities as major culprits in causing climate change diverts attention from the main driver of greenhouse gas emissions, namely unsustainable consumption, especially in the world’s more affluent countries.

The paper examines published reports of emissions from cities in Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe.

It shows that greenhouse gas emissions for New Yorkers are less than a third of those of the national average for the USA. Those of Barcelona residents are half the average for Spain.

Londoners have little more than half the greenhouse gas emissions per person of the UK average. Brazil’s two largest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have less than one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions per person of the average for Brazil.

"Many cities have surprisingly low per capita emissions but what is clear is that most emissions come from the world’s wealthier nations," says Dodman. “The real climate-change culprits are not the cities themselves but the high consumption lifestyles of people living across these wealthy countries."

The paper points out that emissions from manufacturing are currently allocated to the countries in which these greenhouse gases are produced, rather than to the locations in which the finished products are purchased and used.

Dodman adds that wealth need not imply pollution and that rather than blaming cities for climate change, policymakers should see well-planned and effectively governed cities as potential solutions.

"Tokyo has considerably lower emissions per person than either Beijing or Shanghai and this shows clearly that prosperity does not lead inevitably to greater emissions," says Dodman.

"Well designed and well governed cities can combine high living standards with much lower greenhouse gas emissions."
 

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