Mexico’s former president says cities face ‘the last window’ of opportunity to clear the air

By Benjamin Hulac | 01/16/2015 08:01 AM EST

The world’s cities present the biggest hurdles as well as some of the most fertile opportunities to slow global climate change in the coming decades.

The world’s cities present the biggest hurdles as well as some of the most fertile opportunities to slow global climate change in the coming decades.

This was the theme used by most people who spoke at a meeting at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., yesterday. Private engineers met public urban planners, city officials sat next to logistics experts, and political leaders alluded to changing infrastructure needs at a conference about how modern transportation modes can transform cities, improve energy efficiency and lower heat-trapping carbon emissions.

"It is possible to tackle climate change and at the same time create economic growth," said Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico from 2006 to 2012 and the chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, which proposed a path to a low-carbon international economy in its report.


Calling the notion that governments can either expand economically or reduce their carbon emissions a "false dilemma," Calderón, delivering the keynote address, said nations can make great strides by reforming how they develop and consume energy ("decouple economic growth from energy"), modify how they inhabit and use their territories ("stop the degradation of land" and improve agricultural efficiency), and prevent cities from sprawling into their surroundings ("it is impossible to continue" at the current rate).

"We see that the next 15 years are a window of opportunity and probably the last window we have," Calderón said. Carbon pollution, the byproduct of burning fossil energy sources, is subsidized by nations’ citizens through the taxes they pay, he said.

"The lack of the right economic incentives for natural resources" is financially damaging, he added. "We need to price out externalities."

How should a billion more people live?

Cities, already home to more than half the world’s 7 billion people, are responsible for the bulk of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions — 70 percent, according to a 2011 U.N. study — and economists forecast urban areas will only continue to increase in population.

Within the next 15 years, Calderón said, a billion more people will inhabit the Earth; the United Nations projects figures that bear out a similarly rapid rise, too, estimating the global population will reach 9.6 billion in 2050. To keep up with demand, the former Mexican president said "a city like Washington" would have to be built every month.

Rachel Kyte, vice president at the World Bank and special envoy for climate change, said at a later panel that advocates pushing for environmental legislation and business plans to address climate threats too often talk about an "apocalyptic" vision of what a hotter world would resemble, rather than underscoring the opportunities climate adaptation presents.

"This is not a vote winner," said Kyte, adding that advocates should talk about the public health and transportation benefits instead. "What we haven’t done is talk about how exciting it will be to live in new cities."

The low-carbon future must come with the help of innovative cities that promote transportation networks that move their residents efficiently, she said, noting bonds from local and national governments will be useful tools for infrastructure projects, though cities’ creditworthiness will also be vital to shape transit systems to come.

"Mayors are very keen to innovate, mayors are very keen to try new things," said Kevin Austin of C40, the megacity coalition to lower carbon emissions.

Some of those selling points Kyte referenced yesterday morning are the newest vehicles and young technology companies that are driving what is known as the "shared economy" — Uber, the ride-booking firm that lets users request cars from their phones, and its rival, Lyft.

With more shared assets

"Technology is allowing us to share assets in a totally transformative way," said Robin Chase, the founder and former chief executive officer of Zipcar, the vehicle-sharing service, and the founder and CEO of Buzzcar. To successfully integrate transportation modes and urban living, she said, "it has to be 100 percent shared vehicles" in cities of the future.

About 70 percent of electricity in the United States comes from burning fossil fuels, primarily coal and natural gas, and the power sector emits 32 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, according to the latest figures from U.S. EPA.

Yet emissions from the transportation sector (28 percent), based on EPA statistics, are not far behind the power sector’s impact, and the carbon footprint used to maintain the commercial and residential building sector is a significant fraction (10 percent) of the country’s emission cocktail.

"Forty years ago, it was another world," said Vincent Kobesen, the CEO of PTV Group, a German transportation analytics and freight logistics company.

How physical products and goods will be shipped in tomorrow’s cities and neighborhoods is often forgotten, Kobesen said. But, he said, urbanites in the future will use several modes of transportation. "It’s going to be multi-modal," he said.

Because nations compete internationally, said Austin, who helped organize London’s transportation plans during the 2012 Olympics, "cities can share in ways that nations cannot."

One of the most successful ideas passed between international cities, Austin said, has been bicycle-sharing programs, which began in Paris and a handful of other metropolises in the mid-2000s but have now reached 36 majors cities worldwide.