Big City Climate Meeting in Mega-Sao Paulo

The Earth Systems Research Laboratory on Hawaii's Mauna Loa reported at the end of May that the atmospheric carbon level is now 395 ppm (394.97, to be exact), 46 percent higher than the pre-industrial level. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency reported that 2010 greenhouse gas emissions, despite the global economic crisis, were at a record-high level.

As the world steadily approaches a landmark where global carbon concentrations will be 400 ppm and 50 percent higher than the pre-industrial level, experts are concluding that we will be unable to contain the increase in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, our official goal. Evidently we're on track for a 4 degree rise by the end of this century.

Yet the major world economies are deadlocked over whether to stick with the Kyoto program of agreed-upon greenhouse gas reductions, the United States having opted out because of concerns about countries like China and India, and the emerging market economies having refused to opt in because of concerns about how their growth prospects would be affected. 

So, under the circumstances, it's perhaps not surprising that others are seizing the initiative. Representatives of 40 large metropolises (the C40) convened in Sao Paulo last week to discuss what they can do. Half the world's people live in cities, where they consume two thirds of the world's energy and generate 70 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. 

The C40, originally brought together by Bill Clinton, now is chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mega-egos from mega-cities confronting a mega-problem, perhaps the greatest ethical challenge of our day. Can they succeed?

I'm old enough to remember when I first heard that Sao Paulo, a place I had barely heard of, was the world's largest city. Now the world's largest city is most likely Chongqing, on the Yangtze River just upstream from the Three Gorges Dam. Soon it will be some other place we've never heard of. Globalization, industrialization, and urbanization are occurring at such a breakneck pace, it's hard to have faith we'll be able to cope successfully with the ramifications.

The C40 cities agreed last week to regularize a system of emissions accounting, to be submitted to the next big global climate meeting, in Durban, South Africa, next November. the World Bank agreed to establish a single office where cities can come to one-stop-shop for climate action grants. Bloomberg's foundation promised to give the C40 $6 million per year for the next three years to support its activities, a 12-fold increase over what it had been getting from the Clinton Foundation.  (Bill Clinton ceded personal leadership of the group to Bloomberg, an aide to the former president commenting that the "golden rule" applied: He who has the gold rules.)

Making progress on climate depends partly on many people doing many small things in many places, as Bloomberg said in Sao Paulo. (He is seen above unveiling an electric car charging station in New York, last year.) Around the world, cities are tightening energy efficiency standards, accelerating installation of LED lighting, promoting lower-emissions vehicles, and so on.

But progress also depends, even more crucially, on the really big players doing really big things. Though there is much the cities can do to conserve energy, improve energy efficiency, and promote greener technologies, ultimately, unless something is done about how the huge quantities of energy they consume is produced, the climate problem will keep getting worse. Inevitably, then, the emphasis of city programs will be not on slowing climate change but on adapting to it. And the cities that will shine will be those, like Chicago, that prove to have done the most the fastest to be ready for climate change when things get really bad.

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