Adapting to climate change is often painted as painful. But the reality is perhaps more mixed. While putting in flood defenses does cost money—as New York’s $20 billion climate plan shows—other spending has benefits, and aligns with things cities want to do anyway.
To see why read a new report from the Carbon Disclosure Project and C40, which represents cities worldwide. It looks at 110 cities, and reports on the some of the happier results of taking climate change seriously, from energy savings to cleaner air.
"Our conclusions serve to underscore the link between acting to mitigate climate change and the broader economic, social, and environmental benefits that can accrue to cities as a result," it says.
The bad news is that cities see climate change as an increasing threat. Almost half (48%) describe the risks (heat waves, droughts, flooding) as both "near-term" and "serious/extremely serious". Nearly all the cities (98%) describe the issue as a long-term challenge, for example limiting their ability to attract business investment.
But, at the same time, many cities are seeing savings from cutting carbon. The 110 cities report a total $40 million in savings annually, with about half of that (54%) coming from efficiency measures. A quarter comes from three actions alone: reducing energy demand from public buildings, updating city fleets, and using better lighting.
Sydney is a good example in the last category. In the next few years, it plans to replace 6,450 conventional lights with L.E.D.s, with a expected saving of $800,000 a year, and a 70% drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Another example: Los Angeles is retrofitting 4,400 traffic signals and more than 100,000 streetlights, with a projected benefit of $11 million annually.
The report argues that adapting to climate change makes cities more attractive to business. More than 90% of the cities surveyed believe that "working to combat climate change will result in economic opportunities".
"Nearly every reporting city this year understands that climate change action creates economic opportunities—a powerful rebuke to constituencies that associate climate action with economic harm." The report says that 62% of emissions reduction activities have potential to bring in investment.
Finally, the report argues that adaption also makes for healthier places. It points, for example, at what Chicago is doing to close two nearby coal-fired power plants. Such action reduces carbon emissions, but also improves the city’s air quality. Likewise, investments in walking and cycling over expanding access to cars.
American cities have a long way to go, in international terms. The report analyzes how cities generate in wealth per tonne of greenhouse gas emitted. Not surprisingly, North American metros come off badly, at $5,500 per tonne. European cities have double the economic output for the same volume of pollution, with cities like Seoul, Tokyo and Buenos Aires, in between.
Still, the overall tone is hopeful. While there’s a hell of a job to do, there’s reason to imagine that it might have long-term economic and social benefits.