Phoenix is one of the nation’s fastest growing major cities, a sprawling metropolis in an increasingly arid region where federal water managers are now proposing unprecedented cuts to river water supplies. Colorado. At the same time, cities in the Southwest, with their abundant solar power capacity and density potential, have a possible head start on potential solutions to the climate crisis and resource scarcity.
But only if the development is done in the right way.
Questions about urban centers — how they can grow sustainably and how poor city development policy contributes to the climate crisis — have long occupied Kevin Gurney, a professor at Northern Arizona University who studies the carbon cycle, climate science and climate policy. He has also contributed to the regular reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since the 1990s. The United Nations regularly publishes reports from climate experts around the world on the state of the climate crisis. , and the most recent version was shockingly brutal.
According to the report, which fell earlier this month, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak almost immediately, while the use of fossil fuels must essentially cease by the end of this decade. Without this transition, it will be impossible to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) – and the world will face the most catastrophic potential consequences of the climate crisis. So far, the outlook is not good. The report found that, within existing emission reduction targets, global greenhouse gas emissions are on track to increase by 14% by 2030. For the first time ever, the IPCC included a chapter on the political and social barriers to a transition away from fossil fuels. .
Gurney worked on the urban systems chapter of the recent report. He spoke to High Country News on urban planning solutions, the development of cities in the South West and whether, after three decades of working on the IPCC reports, he is frustrated by the lack of urgency on the part of world governments.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
HCN: What are the consequences of poor urban growth?
KG: Many urban infrastructures have a lifespan of the order of several decades. Once it’s built, you effectively lock in a predetermined emissions trajectory, because that infrastructure is going to be used, and that initial sunk investment has to be recouped. The planet is now at crisis level, and the window to avoid these types of locked impacts is getting really small. If we want to stay in that 1.5 degree Celsius or 2 degree trajectory, we really have very little time now.
We say that no city will make a decision on development with climate change as the only decision point. Cities make incredibly complex decisions about development and resource allocation that attempt to do all sorts of important things. Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions must be part of this decision matrix.
HCN: The cities of the Southwest are growing rapidly. Based on your research for the IPCC, what needs to be done to make this happen in a climate-friendly way?
KG: First, the report states that urban areas account for around 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And in almost all the scenarios used by the IPCC, this share will increase over time.
There are three major mitigation elements to highlight in cities, the first being energy supply, particularly electricity. Today, cities often do not have full control of their electricity supply. But since they are the majority of electricity consumers – and some cities have their own utilities – it’s a good place to start. It’s the same thing we’ve been saying for years: we’ve made some transitions from coal to natural gas, but we need to move to renewables. Solar and wind have come down in cost and started to take up more of the grid, but we need to accelerate this transition. We need more use of solar power on rooftops. Arizona is blessed with large amounts of solar energy, but not many clouds. We must take advantage of this fact. And we need public services to be involved.
Solar and wind have come down in cost and started to take up more of the grid, but we need to accelerate this transition.
The second is the road sector. In many cities, road emissions may be the largest emissions sector. We need integrated urban planning that tries to reduce travel distance, from individual passenger vehicles to carpooling, metro or bus. We also need the electrification of the road sector. The problem, of course, is getting old cars back. I think right now in the United States we’ve had maybe 1% EV penetration, which is significant. Not so long ago, electric vehicles really started to enter the market. Consider policies and programs that can accelerate fleet turnover.
And the last one concerns buildings, and of course the electricity supply affects buildings. But there is also plenty of room to improve the efficiency of buildings.
HCN: Your chapter has highlighted the need for integrated planning to make any solution work. Can you explain what this means?
KG: Traditionally, IPCC reports, and a lot of analysis, tend to go sector by sector. “Here is what we do in the road sector, here is what we do in the residential sector”, etc. There is growing recognition that in cities, mitigation really needs to be thought about systemically. So when you think of development, you think, “OK, what is the impact of the roads that are going to be needed? What do they mean in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? What about infrastructure? Can we avoid gas pipelines and go all-electric? Well, if we do that, where does the electricity supply come from? What does this mean for water?
Planning must have this integrated aspect where all the components of energy and material inputs necessary for urban growth must be taken into account in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Sector isolation often blinds you, and you can solve one problem and make another worse.
The focus is on major expansion in cities like Phoenix. And we must make equal efforts for more integrated urban development. This means bringing people closer to their work through mixed residential and commercial spaces, more pedestrianized parts of the city. There aren’t many different types of modes (of transportation in Phoenix), things like light rail, buses, public transportation. The more extensive the development, the more vehicle miles you end up with.
Cities are not islands, they exist in a metropolitan area, and then these are in a county, in a state. Cities have some autonomy to do things, but they also have to work within what we call the multi-governance framework. This means that not only do they have to integrate things into their own planning, but the integration must also intensify. Cities need to work together and work with their regions and leverage solutions at each of these scales. It’s complex, but ultimately leads to bigger changes when they’re systemic because they can be sustained.
HCN: You have worked in global climate research since the 1990s, and the action needed to tackle the crisis has not taken place. Do you ever despair?
KG: I don’t despair, because that’s just not my nature. But “frustrating” is the word I would use. We did the work, and the message is there. I think what’s frustrating is the fact that he’s become so politically partisan. That, to me, is the saddest part of it all, because as scientists working on this problem, it’s never a political issue for us. We try to establish what is true and what is not true, which is based on facts.
There are lots of opportunities here to do things that benefit the economies… and the quality of life for so many people.
The other part of the frustration is that alongside the unpleasant reality of this problem, it has always been associated with a certain modicum of opportunity. There are many opportunities here to do things that are good for economies, good in all sorts of other ways for the self-reliance of nation states, their energy independence, and the quality of life for so many people.
Take Arizona as an example, because this transition represents a tremendous opportunity. Not only do we have abundant natural resources that we can use to help solve this problem, but we can create significant industrial growth in the clean energy sector. It’s a shame we don’t see it, in part because of the fear that stems from political messages and the manipulation of reality. Arizona has so many opportunities in space, and it’s so frustrating not to take them and bring those economic opportunities to the state. Fear, misunderstanding and misinformation got in the way of this positive message.
HCN: This IPCC report seemed more blunt and direct than previous versions when it comes to policy obstacles and policy solutions. Was it on purpose?
KG: Yes, I think that’s true. The IPCC has recognized the need to be a little more practical. Remember that our job is to review the state of knowledge, not to recommend policy. But I think there was a point in giving people more practical information about what’s possible. I think it reads as more direct, a little less theoretical, a little less abstract. The crisis around us is getting worse. We need to interpret and analyze the literature in a way that gives people, policy makers, decision makers and stakeholders real actionable information that they can use to do things. I know in (the chapter on urban systems) it’s something we both spent a lot of time discussing. Rather than abstractions about cities, we want to give a good perspective on the literature around climate mitigation in cities, failures and successes, to practically guide decision makers.
Nick Bowlin is correspondent for News from the High Country. Send him an e-mail to [email protected] or send a letter to the editor. See our letters to editor policy. Follow @npbowlin