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10 Cities That Are Leading on Climate Change

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A juried competition recently recognized ten major cities as “climate leaders,” for the innovative approaches they are taking to act on climate change. Spanning the global North and South, these cities don’t invite easy comparisons of their social, economic, or even geographic conditions—only in their willingness to grab the opportunities inherent in curbing climate risk, from restoring the environment to improving public health, upgrading mass transit, augmenting flood protections, cutting energy waste, and more.

The awards, sponsored by the group C40 Cities and the German engineering corporation Siemens, were made in London in early September.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

City: Rio de Janeiro

Project: Morar Carioca
Category: Sustainable Communities

Morar Carioca is Rio de Janiero’s high-priority plan to convert all its slums, or favelas, into recognized city communities by 2020. Roughly one-fifth of the city’s residents—around 232,000 households—live in these favelas, most without basic sanitation, and with little in the way of building standards. Under the plan (also known as the “Municipal Plan for the Integration of Informal Settlements”), Rio will bring municipal services like clean water and waste collection into the favelas; upgrade urban infrastructure (such as providing energy-efficient lighting); improve residential buildings; and more. Along with the obvious social, health, and safety benefits, integrating the favelas will cut methane emissions, water pollution, and soil erosion. As of 2013, 68 favelas have been “re-urbanized.”



City: Singapore

Project: Intelligent Transport System
Category: Intelligent City Infrastructure

Singapore is using technology to address the shortcomings of its geography. As an island city-state, it can’t appreciably increase its 274 square mile area, while its population, currently 5.31 million, has more than doubled in the past 25 years, and twelve percent of the land is already covered with roads. Instead of sacrificing other infrastructure to build more highways, Singapore’s “Electronic Road Pricing” systems raise tolls for drivers when there’s more traffic and lowers them when there’s less, resulting in some of the lowest traffic congestion of any major city. (Average auto speed: 17 miles per hour.) Other high-tech systems monitor road conditions and provide the public with real-time traffic information.



City: Copenhagen

Project: CPH Climate Action Plan 2025
Category: Carbon Measurement and Planning

To become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025, Copenhagen is following a master plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions from about 2.5 million to 1.2 million metric tons. The city recently launched the first of seven cooling plants that uses seawater to create air conditioning; and has many other low-carbon energy generation and efficiency initiatives in the works.  To cut auto use, and get 50 percent of work or school commuters onto bicycles in the next decade, Copenhagen has partnered with 21 local governments to build 26 cycle superhighways. The first opened in April 2013: 11 well-lit, evenly paved, motor vehicle-free miles between the city center and its Albertslund suburb.


Mexico City

City: Mexico City

Project: ProAire
Category: Air Quality

Since 1990, Mexico City’s consecutive ProAire programs have taken on the urban center’s serious air pollution problem. Efforts have included closure of the city’s most noxious factories, a one-day-per-week car ban, and the creation of the longest bus rapid transit system in Latin America, as well as the largest bike-sharing program in the region. ProAire was initially a response to the health problems caused by air pollution, and the related economic toll; but it has also cut greenhouse gas pollution by 7.7 million metric tons. Mexico City’s fourth ProAire program includes plans for reforestation, reduced energy consumption, public education, and dozens of other measures; it runs until 2020.


Melbourne, Australia

City: Melbourne

Project: Sustainable Buildings Program
Category: Energy Efficient Built Environment

With a population growth rate of two percent a year, Melbourne is on track to surpass 8 million residents by 2050, even as it strives to attain zero net carbon emissions. So the Australian city is undertaking different initiatives that if fully realized, could drive down energy consumption enough to get there in about a decade. In the commercial building sector, which generates over half the city’s greenhouse gas pollution, Melbourne has strengthened the environmental standards on new construction. It also offers financial sweeteners for retrofitting existing structures – about 10 percent so far have taken advantage, with the ultimate goal being 70 percent, or 1,200 buildings, which could lower carbon dioxide emissions by 383,000 tons a year. On the residential front, the city’s Smart Blocks program helps apartment dwellers improve energy efficiency and lower costs.


Bogotá, Colombia

City: Bogotá

Project: TransMilenio + E-taxis
Category: Urban Transportation

Bogotá began its TransMilenio bus rapid transit system in 2000, hoping to reduce the acute air pollution created when over 8.5 million commuters a day ride 18,000 diesel-burning buses to and from work. Today the 2,000-vehicle system transports about 1.5 million passengers a day, and has reduced annual carbon emissions by around 350,000 metric tons. In 2012, Bogotá began testing low-emissions electric and hybrid bus models on some routes, and hopes to bring thousands into service by the end of 2014—a striking goal for any world capital. Bogotá’s electric taxi pilot project has put 46 test vehicles into service; if it works out, the conversion to electric could cut greenhouse gas pollution from the city’s taxi fleet by 70 percent.


San Francisco, USA

City: San Francisco

Project: Zero Waste Program
Category: Waste Management

To become a zero waste city by 2020, San Francisco since 2002 has been enacting progressively stronger regulations on reduction, recovery, and recycling of materials.  Just over 75 percent of the city’s waste stream is now reused or recycled, rather than incinerated or landfilled. Rather than focusing solely on the consumer or other end user, the city also pays attention to changes in production and packaging, and practices what it preaches on its own waste stream, which accounts for about 15 percent of the total. The Zero Waste Program is funded from rates paid for garbage collection, providing consistent funding that allows the program to make progress, and works closely with private partner Recology to create, test, and run trash infrastructure that supports intensive recycling and composting.


Munich, Germany

City: Munich

Project: 100% Green Power
Category: Green Energy

To generate at least 7.5 billion kWh a year by 2025, enough to power the entire municipality, Munich has expanded its clean energy generation capacity steadily since 2008. Wind energy is a major player: 25 plants in the municipal utility’s system generate about 100 million kWh of electricity a year while curbing greenhouse gas pollution by 90,000 metric tons. It’s enough to power 40,000 Munich households, or five percent of the city’s 1.35 million population. By 2015, over eighty percent of the city’s green electricity will likely be generated by wind parks. The city has also brought geothermal, biomass, and solar generation online, as well as a smart-gridded micro-generation system.


Tokyo, Japan

City: Tokyo

Project: City Cap-and-Trade Program
Category: Finance and Economic Development

Tokyo generates about 62 million metric tons of carbon pollution a year, all but eight percent related to energy use. The city’s cap-and-trade program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first for an urban center, requires large commercial, industrial, and government buildings to cut their carbon pollution via energy efficiency or emissions trading. In its first year, participants cut emissions by 15 percent (compared to 2000 levels); by the end of 2012 reductions were at 23 percent overall. Many participating buildings have now met emissions reduction targets set for 2019, and the program is driving public awareness of climate change.


New York, USA

City: New York City

Project: A Stronger, More Resilient New York
Category: Adaptation and Resilience

Hurricane Sandy’s 14-foot storm surge killed 43 people in New York City, and caused at least $19 billion in damage. “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” outlines 250 projects to protect the city’s coastline, and to strengthen city buildings, energy systems, transportation networks, parks, telecommunications, health care operations, and supplies of food and water. Created in an inclusive, multi-agency process that featured input from elected officials, community groups, and the public, initiatives range from reducing flood insurance rates in response to varied resiliency actions, to building storm surge barriers on waterways, to flood retrofits for large buildings. If the first phase alone is implemented, the project will avert over $22 billion in economic losses by the 2050s.

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