Rooting for Cities

Though we have only a decade to do something about global climate change, many cities hold a unique combination of power and the will to set climate goals that are commensurate with the threat. As a city dweller, I’m anxious for local leaders to represent me and my values. I cheered when New York City passed legislation to require buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut climate emissions 40 percent by 2030. But how does New York compare to other cities when it comes to curbing its emissions? During a week in Helsinki with 21 representatives of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA) member cities, I decided to find out how New York City stacks up against its rivals.

To join CNCA, member cities must set aggressive targets to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80-100 percent by 2050 or sooner. These are megacities from around the globe, homes to millions of people. Some are already experiencing “storms of the century” on an annual basis; others are just beginning to sizzle under increasing levels of drought and heat. All will experience previously unimaginable changes to the flow of people entering or leaving their borders.

While the CNCA is truly an alliance for best-in-class cities to learn from each other, competition is an undercurrent. Many citizens who are fans of their cities want them to run harder and faster than their neighbors when it comes to sustainability.

I asked Stockholm how they felt to be hosted by Helsinki, their rival city. Stockholm and Helsinki are both great Nordic capitals, perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea. I assumed, ignorantly, they were engaged in a friendly competition—they used to be Vikings, after all. And while Stockholm has a target to reduce its GHG emissions 100 percent below 2005 levels by 2040, Helsinki’s target date for carbon neutrality (reducing emissions generated within the city borders to 80 percent below 1990 levels) is 2035.

But no, Stockholm does not compete with Helsinki. They compete with Copenhagen, they said.

“Helsinki probably competes with Oslo,” Stockholm added with a smirk, in what must have been a hilarious burn that went right over my head. But I see Oslo as a formidable rival. It’s the electric vehicle capital of the world. In 2017, more than 50 percent of new cars sold there were fully battery electric or plug-in hybrid.

Public transport in Helsinki.

Toronto was nearby, so I asked if they benefit from a city rivalry.

“On climate, we compete with Vancouver,” said Toronto, a city with a plan to divert 95 percent of waste from landfills by 2050.

Vancouver is something of a rock star among the sort of people who track city climate plans—including the people who write climate plans for other cities. Vancouver recently passed a suite of actions to respond to the “climate emergency,” through six “Big Moves.” One of the big moves is to reduce embodied emissions in buildings and construction projects to 40 percent below 2018 levels by 2030.

But Vancouver didn’t return Toronto’s cannon fire. The next day at lunch, after eating what I later discovered was pureed reindeer, Vancouver said that their rival—you may have already guessed it—is Copenhagen.

Over a series of fish-based starters followed by fish entrees, I couldn’t stop asking these cities about their rivalries. I felt confident that Portland, where I used to live, would choose Seattle as their rival. Portland has already cut emissions 21 percent below 1990 levels. But Seattle, who boasts the first carbon neutral utility in the nation (Seattle Power and Light), said they are more motivated to beat San Francisco.

San Francisco boasted not having any rival. “One time we tried to get our mayor to support a policy that Los Angeles had already passed, but no one cared.”

Love it or hate it, the City by the Bay has remarkable goals. By 2050, if all goes according to plan, 100 percent of San Francisco’s buildings will be powered by renewable energy, 80 percent of trips will be traveled by sustainable modes of transportation, and zero waste will end up in landfills.

But after some thought, they volunteered Copenhagen. I was beginning to see a pattern.

I asked Rio de Janeiro if they were upset that Santiago was going to host the U.N. climate meetings later this year. They were unmoved. Rio, one of the first cities to carry out an inventory of municipal GHG emissions back in 2000, is more inclined to find inspiration in Medellin’s innovative sustainable transit system.

In 2015, a Sydney group gifted solar panels for the prime minister's beach-side residence.

Over a spirited discussion of whether climate change might make wine taste better (you win some, you lose some), at last I found the perfect pairing: Melbourne said that they compete with Sydney, and later, Sydney said that they try to outpace Melbourne. Melbourne has a target of zero net municipal emissions by 2020. Sydney intends to have renewables account for 50 percent of energy in the city by 2030.

After Amsterdam—which has a goal to completely kick their natural gas habit by 2040—credited Copenhagen for their membership in the CNCA, I knew I had to follow my line of questioning as far as it would go. The Danish capital has designs to reach carbon neutrality by 2025. They’ve already reduced GHG emissions to 42 percent below 2005 levels.

I cornered Copenhagen at last, under opulent ceilings inside Helsinki’s city hall, breathless with anticipation. But they were, of course, completely charming.

“We learn from every city here! It’s not a competition.” I suppose it’s easy to be diplomatic when you are top dog.

As cities compete to set ambitious climate targets, we will have to accept radical changes to the way they work. In a future threatened by climate change, cities can harness great power from their people and their economy. Cities can do a lot today to mitigate the worst effects of climate change later.

When cities compete to reduce carbon quicker, we all win.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.