A climate scientist’s view of cities and COP22
By Sarah Wesseler
October 28, 2016
To thrive on a planet being transformed by climate change, we need a broad range of actors, from heads of state to heads of industry, to commit to a shared course of action. Scientists play a particularly critical role in this process, ensuring that these plans are informed by a deep understanding of natural systems.
Ecologist Tony Janetos has spent decades doing precisely this, earning a reputation as a leading climate scientist while working in government, the nonprofit sector, and academia. Now the director of Boston University’s Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, he’s helping Arup develop an internal training module focusing on the power and influence of cities in today’s world.
I spoke with him about cities, technology, and the upcoming COP22 conference.
As an ecologist focused on climate change, how do cities fit into your thinking? How has this changed throughout your career?
I’ve always believed it’s important to understand how climate change impacts ecosystems and natural resources, but I’ve increasingly come to believe that it’s also important to understand how it impacts people directly. For example, some of my personal research focuses on what happens in the major breadbaskets of the world if they start getting affected really strongly and simultaneously.
And then there’s the fact that everybody lives in cities. In the US and Western Europe, around 90% of the population lives in urban areas, and we’re past 50% in the world as a whole. From the standpoint of climate impact, it’s really important to understand what’s happening to people in the built environment. Are there features of the built environment that make us either more or less resilient to climate change?
So on the impact side, my interests have evolved in that direction. And then on the greenhouse gas emissions side, you have to look at how and where they’re actually occurring. About a third of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions, for example, come from transportation. Many of those emissions occur in cities. So the actions that cities take are really important.
An example — I can see one of the major thoroughfares in the city, Storrow Drive, from my office. I’m looking at it now. At rush hour it’s a total nightmare, bumper-to-bumper traffic. If Boston were successful in getting cars off the road and convincing a larger fraction of people to carpool or use mass transit, that would have a huge impact on emissions.
You mentioned that transportation counts for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Can you say a bit more about the breakdown? I feel like I often hear things like “X is responsible for a large percent of all greenhouse gas emissions,” with X being anything from agriculture to buildings to fashion. For a nonspecialist, it can be difficult to figure out how everything fits together.
Part of the problem is that it’s a big pie — you can cut it up lots of different ways.
If I say transportation is about a third of US greenhouse gas emissions, more precisely I mean that of the combustion sources of US greenhouse gas emissions, transportation is about a third. Electricity is also about a third, and manufacturing and industry are roughly a third. Those are the three big chunks of the pie.
Agriculture, for example, produces additional emissions, mostly having to do either with land use change or application of fertilizer. These are relatively small compared to the big combustion sources, though. Those are really the most important sources over time: transportation, electricity generation, manufacturing and industry. And those three are totally tied up with what we do in the built environment: how we use it, how efficient it is at using energy, how we reduce the emissions released in everyday use.
How does all this relate to COP22? What should the average person understand about the conference?
Well, it’s one thing to make a plan to reduce emissions, which is what happened at COP21. It’s another to say how well you’re doing on that plan. That’s really what’s going to come out of COP22.
The US has a plan, largely based on the president’s proposal through the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency]: the Clean Power Plan. So how much of the Clean Power Plan are we going to implement? Will we hit targets? There’s been a long-term economic transformation that’s made each unit of economic activity more efficient with respect to releasing greenhouse gases. Will that also continue? It’s the agreements in COP22 that will tell us. Everybody’s got to say how they’re doing.
In effect, we’re talking about an international agreement to keep score. Not because one nation’s going to punish another one; these agreements don’t have those kinds of teeth built into them. But nothing gets people’s attention like keeping score.
It’s one thing to make a plan to reduce emissions, which is what happened at COP21. It’s another to say how well you’re doing on that plan.
So you feel like a big strength of this model is the competitive factor?
To some extent. I also think that it’s simply difficult to make a public promise and then not measure up. That’s an uncomfortable situation for countries just like it’s an uncomfortable situation for individuals. Putting that machinery in place that says, “Okay, here’s how nations are doing compared to what they said they would do” is very important.
How do you view the relationship between advanced technologies and climate change mitigation?
There are certainly technologies that are nascent, right? They’re in this embryonic state. There are a handful of places around the world where the oil and gas industry has actually done carbon capture and sequestration — no more than a handful, though. There’s research on the capture of CO2 directly from the atmosphere; there’s research on what it would take to build bigger sinks for carbon in soils or in reforestation programs. We know a lot about how to make building operations more energy-efficient, but we could implement much more of that knowledge than we currently do.
One of the big challenges is, how do any of these technologies scale? That’s a real key, both for existing technologies and new technologies. And what role does policy play in getting them to scale?
I’m sure the answer varies wildly, but what do you see as the main barriers to scaling? Are they economic, cultural…?
Well, some are clearly economic. Some are cultural — “we’ve never done it this way before.” Some are just political barriers.
As the economic barriers get reduced, my observation is that other barriers also tend to go away. Renewables — there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic there. As the price of the technology comes down and people’s experience with it grows, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it could scale more easily than we might have thought 10 or 15 years ago. When the economic barriers for wind and solar photovoltaics get low enough, people pay attention.
And in the US there’s been this wholesale replacement of coal with natural gas. It’s pretty much purely an economic phenomenon that’s been enabled by technology. Now, there are drawbacks; shale gas has its own set of issues associated with fracking and so forth. But as a story about how the evolution of technology and the reduction of economic barriers can lead to pretty rapid changes in emissions, it’s really quite instructive.
Cities are tricky because the infrastructure is built to last. It’s not like you’re going to have widespread and rapid replacement of the built infrastructure. But you can have advances in materials and material use and efficiencies that get built into maintenance cycles. Those could end up, over a longer time period, producing quite substantial changes.