7 Effective Ways That Cities Can Reduce Climate Change

Although climate change has its deniers, science has proven that, unfortunately and unequivocally, climate change does exist worldwide. Global climate change has negatively affected our environment in observable, measurable ways. We have already witnessed glaciers shrinking, the ice on lakes and rivers breaking up more rapidly than before, trees flowering sooner than usual, and animal and plant ranges shifting. Sea ice is becoming lost, sea levels are rising, and heat waves are growing longer and intensifying.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes over 1300 scientists from the United States and around the world, predicts that temperatures will rise from 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next hundred years. They also predict that, as global temperatures increase, the net annual costs of this climate change will rise worldwide. Some of the negative changes that the IPCC forecasts to occur include:

  • Frost-free planting seasons, and growing seasons, will increase worldwide, with some of the greatest effects being seen in the western United States
  • Heavier precipitation events will continue in the U.S. and elsewhere
  • Droughts and heat waves will increase worldwide
  • Hurricanes will strengthen, become more frequent, and intensify
  • Global sea levels will rise another one to eight feet by 2100
  • The Arctic Ocean will become free of ice in summer by mid-century

These are just a few of the negative and alarming changes that are expected to occur as a result of international climate change.

The situation is not completely hopeless, however. Climate change cannot be completely stopped, but cities and individuals can work in tandem to combat and mitigate climate change. This requires current and future urban planners to have a thorough understanding of climate change and public policy. As they move forward, urban planners and policy makers at all levels must work to fight climate change in various ways, including but not limited to, initiating zero waste efforts, increasing sustainable transportation, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and increasing green building and green space designs. Making these and other transformations within our current and future cities is hoped, and expected, to help to produce a significant decline in the negative effects of climate change.

Here are seven ways that urban planners and cities can work together to reduce the negative effects of climate change.

Facilitate Zero Waste Efforts

According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, zero waste is described as the conservation of all resources using responsible production, reuse, consumption, and recovery of packaging, products, and materials, without burning or discharging to land, water or air that would threaten human health or the environment. Zero waste is just one step in the larger efforts to reduce climate change through protecting health and environment, improving equity and attaining sustainability. There are many things that cities and individuals can do to facilitate zero waste efforts, such as:

  • Establishing measurable benchmarks and a timeline to meet zero waste goals. This helps communities to be able to measure success and monitor accomplishments in zero waste efforts. Examples of goals could include diverting 90 percent of waste generated from a city’s landfills within 10 years of adopting a plan; or a loftier, worldwide goal (such as the goal of the Urban Environmental Accords) of achieving zero waste by 2040.
  • Involving an entire community in zero waste efforts. It should not be strictly the responsibility of waste experts, city planners and urban designers to facilitate zero waste efforts. Meetings should be organized to educate and include all of the community in promoting zero waste.
  • Focusing on managing resources, not waste. This can be achieved through closing down existing incinerators and not building new ones, reforming landfill practices to prevent all air and water pollution, reducing waste, reusing products, recycling, and composting, for example.
  • Removing tax incentives for wasting. Some governments in the U.S. have adopted tax incentives to encourage mining and timber harvesting, all of which waste resources. Other waste incentives currently in existence include garbage rate structures that make it cheaper to waste than to recycle. Cities must remove subsidies for wasting in order to achieve zero waste.
  • Expanding zero waste infrastructure, creating more locations for reuse, recycling and composting. Local governments and community members should help decide on new locations to develop for recycling, reuse, and composting. Businesses and citizen groups that reuse should be supported. Compostable organics should be removed from landfills and returned to the soil. Reuse and recycling policies should be developed for construction, demolition, land clearing and remodeling.
  • Creating zero waste to landfill initiatives. The ultimate goal of this is to divert 100 percent of the waste a company or entity produces from a landfill to an alternate disposal source.

Sustainable Transportation

Surface transportation worldwide contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change. In 2018, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation in the United States alone accounted for 28.2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainable transportation is one solution that can help to mitigate climate change. This involves supporting a society’s mobility needs in ways that are least damaging to the environment but still take into account the mobility needs of current and future generations. Sustainable transportation is a major goal in helping to reduce climate change, both now and for years to come.

Cities must take the initiative in reducing fossil fuel energy and encouraging sustainable transportation, and can do so in a variety of ways. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Public transportation – Creating, offering and maintaining a variety of public transportation options, is one of the most expensive, complex, and critical ways of reducing energy consumption in cities. Doing so helps to dissuade citizens from driving and using even more fossil fuel, reducing reliance on vehicles and gasoline.
  • Creating bicycle lanes and bike sharing – Cities that create bicycle lanes on their roads help their citizens to feel safer when bicycling around town. Some cities even offer bike sharing services, where people can “rent” a bike to use for a short period of time. Both of these initiatives can lessen vehicle density on the roads and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.
  • Rewarding drivers of hybrid and electric cars – Cities that offer incentives to citizens who choose to drive hybrid or electric cars encourage everyone to be more conscious of the energy they use. Many cities have also begun to offer designated, premium parking spots for hybrid and electric vehicles as another incentive.
  • Reducing traffic congestion –Programs to reduce traffic congestion can greatly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and foster sustainable transportation. This is largely dependent upon driving patterns, vehicle activity and speed. For example, if traffic congestion reduces a vehicle’s speed below 45 mph on a freeway, carbon dioxide emissions increase. This congestion results in vehicles spending more time on the road, increasing carbon dioxide emissions. Changing the traffic flow in cities to eliminate stop-and-go traffic so that vehicles move at a relatively constant speed can help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Transportation Planners are vital to achieving sustainable transportation worldwide. Also known as Transit Planning Managers, Transportation Planners develop ways to organize transportation within a given area. Some of their job duties include defining a region’s transportation planning problems and priorities, recommending improvements to existing transportation systems, analyzing traffic projections and demographic data, designing transportation surveys, and using data from traffic modeling software and geographic information systems to create more efficient, sustainable plans.

Reducing CO2 Emissions

As referenced above, decreasing carbon dioxide emissions is essential to reducing climate change. Since 1990, the EPA notes, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have increased by almost four percent. It is important to note that greenhouse gas emissions can change from year to year and are dependent upon many factors, such as the price of fuel, the weather, and the economy.

City planners can help to prioritize the environment by offering green solutions and minimizing their carbon footprint. Ways in which this can be done include:

  • Creating low emission zones and clean air zones. Around the world, 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, and 72 percent of those emissions come from vehicles on the road. Some cities have enacted low emission zones to target vehicle emissions, setting strict vehicle emissions standards within that zone and banning vehicles that don’t meet those targets from entering the zone.
  • Optimizing buildings for energy efficiency. This includes green building design, which we will discuss further later. Planners can design buildings to be more efficient in using resources to reduce CO2 emissions. Buildings are made more weathertight, and the indoor environment is ventilated to prevent mold, moisture and carbon monoxide from building up. These optimized buildings have a positive effect on the natural environment.
  • Using renewable energy such as solar energy. Renewable energy, such as wind and solar energy, may still be expensive compared to using fossil fuels, but when faced with the long-term cost of greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy is much more cost-effective. More major utility companies are realizing this and have invested in renewable energy sources.
  • Using smart meters. Smart meters record a home or building’s energy consumption in short intervals, and send meter readings to energy suppliers. Energy consumers are given real-time information on their energy usage, costs and potential impact on the environment. These can also be integrated with renewable energy sources.

Green Building Design

The World Green Building Council defines green building design as the design and construction of buildings that reduce or eliminate negative impacts, and can even create positive impacts, on climate and the natural environment. Green buildings help to preserve natural resources and improve our quality of life.

What makes a green building? Architects and others who work in building design must rethink building strategies to incorporate green building design into communities. Elements such as cement use, green canopies, painted rooftops, and solar energy should be included in green building design. It is highly important to preserve resources and use sustainable architectural elements when designing green buildings.

The EPA has defined seven components of green building design:

  • Uses efficient, renewable energy. Using renewable power sources, solar panels, and reducing the heat island effect caused by urban patterns of development are vital to green building design. Cool roofs that are energy saving, and green roofs (water and energy-saving vegetated roofs) are also preferred.
  • Water efficiency. Products and services that promote water efficiency must be incorporated into a green building’s design. A building’s construction, especially its landscaping, can determine how the completed structure uses water most efficiently.
  • Uses environmentally-preferred building materials and specifications. Green building materials must be used in green building design. These include things such as recycled steel, recycled industrial materials like construction or demolition debris, and using options such as shipping containers and sustainable structure-insulated panels.
  • Waste reduction. Reducing waste generated during the construction process is crucial in green building design. Landscaping that preserves natural resources and prevents waste and pollution is also critical.
  • Toxics reduction– Reducing toxins within a building’s structure can involve using framing materials made from concrete, rebar and foam; and avoiding chemically-treated wood framing. Insulation created from straw bale or rammed earth is another option to chemical-filled commercial insulation.
  • Indoor air quality- Improving indoor air quality in a green building involves designs or that circulate and filter indoor air. Using sustainable materials, like bamboo, for example, can help to absorb more carbon dioxide from the air and produce more oxygen than using regular wood.
  • Smart growth and sustainable development-If a building is sustainable, it will continue to develop its sustainability and environmental impact over time. Managing storm water runoff and occupant waste in new and sustainable ways help to foster sustainable development. Smart growth may involve location-efficient siting of buildings, locating new buildings within existing communities, promoting healthy communities and economic development.

Spreading Green Spaces

Green space, or land that has been partly or completely covered with vegetation, can include parks, meadows, urban forests, community gardens, and even cemeteries. Green spaces provide relief from the hardscape of urban environments, giving citizens opportunities for passive and active recreation.

Green spaces must be planned when urban planners are planning cities and communities. Green spaces influence the health, education, environment, transportation, utilities, and the entire community. Implementing green spaces in planning may involve changing existing legislation and public policy to legally protect environmentally important areas, or to design and plant new green spaces like parks, sports fields, or urban forests.

Benefits to implementing green spaces within a community include (but are not limited to):

  • Providing water quality benefits, as water is infiltrated and purified when it passes through vegetation
  • Creating greater biodiversity by reducing habitat fragmentation in urban areas
  • Controlling air pollution and contributing to reduced carbon dioxide emissions
  • Decreasing the incidence of soil erosion, improving water retention and the groundwater recharge rate
  • Improving city water management and providing higher water retention capacity, preventing floods
  • Absorbing less heat than solid industrial construction, as green spaces promote evaporation and reduce the urban heat island effect
  • Providing shade and cooling around other buildings in hotter climates, reducing energy costs and increasing property value
  • Providing aesthetic and recreation value for communities and citizens
  • Reducing noise in urban areas, as green spaces reflect less sound than buildings and other urban structures

Global Energy Transformation

The global energy transformation movement calls for a shift to renewable energy worldwide by 2050. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), renewable energy must be increased six times faster in order for the world to meet climate mitigation and decarbonization goals by 2050 that were set in the 2015 climate accord, the Paris Agreement. IRENA’s report has shown that using renewable energy and energy efficiency measures can provide over 90 percent of carbon dioxide emission reductions necessary to meet these goals. This can occur through using technologies that are safe, affordable, reliable and available.

City planners, particularly environmental sustainability planners, must take the global energy transformation movement into consideration when implementing city design. Investing in lower-carbon technologies and shifting to renewable energy is vital, not only to combat climate change but also to help create more jobs in the energy field. IRENA’s figures note that the shift to renewable energy should create more energy jobs than those lost from fossil fuel industries. Global GDP is expected to grow by one percent by 2050, and international welfare overall should increase as well.

Urban Planning

Urban, city and regional designers and planners are fundamental in the fight against climate change. These professionals are instrumental in helping to implement the changes discussed above. For those who are interested in making a difference by pursuing a career in the urban planning field, there are many from which to choose. Some examples include:

  • Climate Action Planner/Environmental Program Manager– These professionals carry the responsibility of planning with a focus on climate and the environment. Most of them follow established Climate Action Plans. Climate Action Planners create and implement strategic plans and manage projects with climate and environmental change always in the forefront of their minds.
  • Environmental Sustainability Planner– These planners are urban and regional planners who focus on both economic and environmental sustainability in planning and design. This is accomplished through assessing climate, economic outlook and planning techniques within a region, combining urban planning and environmental science.
  • Transportation Planner– Transportation Planners help to organize and plan transportation needs and methods within a certain area. They must take climate and environmental concerns into consideration when planning for the transportation needs of a region.
  • Public Policy– Careers in public policy are highly important when it comes to reducing climate change, as it is only through public policy that things get done. Public policy makers create regulations and legislation that planners and designers must follow to help to mitigate climate change.
  • Urban Planner– Urban planners are critical in mitigating climate change. Their research, analysis and creation of plans for an area will largely determine how that area affects and responds to climate change.
  • Architect– Architects are vital to reducing climate change. They plan and carry out building projects, all while keeping climate and environmental change in the forefront of their minds.