Azara Blog: Another pointless UN report on climate change, this one on cities

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Date published: 2011/03/29

The BBC says:

Urban areas are set to become the battleground in the global effort to curb climate change, the UN has warned.

The assessment by UN-Habitat said that the world's cities were responsible for about 70% of emissions, yet only occupied 2% of the planet's land cover.

While cities were energy intensive, the study also said that effective urban planning could deliver huge savings.
Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat, said the global urbanisation trend was worrying as far as looking to curb emissions were concerned.

"We are seeing how urbanisation is growing - we have passed the threshold of 50% (of the world's population living in urban areas)," he told BBC News.

"There are no signs that we are going to diminish this path of growth, and we know that with urbanisation, energy consumption is higher.

According to UN data, an estimated 59% of the world's population will be living in urban areas by 2030.
Dr Clos told BBC News that while climate change was a problem that affected the entire world, individual towns and cities could play a vital role in the global effort to curb emissions.

"The atmosphere is a common good, which we all depend upon - every emission is an addition to the problem," he explained.

But, he added: "Consumption is carried out at an individual level; energy consumption is also an individual choice.

"This is why local governments and communities can a big role, even when their national governments do not accept or acknowledge the challenges."

Unfortunately the actual report is not available online and they want you to buy a paper copy (how green) for 90 pounds. All they have online are various press releases, which contain summaries but nothing about the methodology.

It is not even clear if they are reporting carbon emissions correctly. For example, the British government reports that British emissions are down on 1990 levels but one of the main reasons is that emissions have been moved off-shore, mainly to China, and so the emissions are not being counted correctly. It's quite likely that the UN report underestimates the emissions of people living in cities.

There is a growing trend amongst certain members of the academic middle class to claim that cities are much more environmentally friendly than suburbs and rural areas. The UN figures, even if they are an underestimate, make that claim evidently false. So 50% of the world lives in cities and 70% of emissions are due to cities. So although people who live in cities are generally more energy efficient (so have a higher GDP per energy input) this does not mean they use less energy overall, and indeed it usually means the opposite.

There are three main factors that determine how much you contribute to emissions, and none of these have to do with where you live, which is a secondary factor:

Needless to say, these factors are rarely discussed. Also relevant is the percentage of emissions you contribute to but do not have to pay the actual cost for (because that is equivalent to earning more money) but that is likely not to vary that much from person to person when calculated correctly, so is likely to be a secondary effect.

The remarks by Clos that "energy consumption is also an individual choice" is technically correct but completely vacuous. Clos is not poor. Clos is not young. Who knows how many children he has, but you can guarantee that Clos, like the rest of his class, is responsible for far, far more emissions than the average citizen of the rich world, never mind the average citizen of the entire world. Perhaps he should pause and reflect on his own energy consumption before he lectures everyone else in this way.

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