Climate Injustice and Cities

Peter Marcotullio
Hunter College – City University of New York, USA

Climate injustice refers to the uneven contribution to and effects of climate change. It is often said that those that have contributed the least to the problem are affected the most. This is not only in reference to the developed versus developing world slip, but also to the within and among sub-national units. This article examines the role of urbanization and cities in climate injustice. Because the world’s demographic destiny is urban are we also automatically locked-into a world of climate injustice?

Some argue yes, urbanization is both influencing climate change unequally and creating disproportional vulnerabilities for the poor. Urban activities are fueled by fossil energy consumption that increases greenhouse gas emissions and these emissions are not equally distributed within or among cities. The concentration of urban populations and infrastructure on coasts and by rivers, in arid areas and in fragile ecosystems means increased exposure to climate change events, with risk concentrated in specific locations and amongst specific populations. Moreover, the massive global urban in-migration of rural poor people negatively impacts urban resident’s capacity for climate change resilience.

At the same time, however, there are those that suggest the mutually reinforcing relationship between climate change and urbanization is at odds. That is, urbanization may be the best way in which societies address climate change and climate change injustice. Organizing people in dense settlements affords energy efficiencies; urban living allows reduced emissions. Furthermore, urbanization helps to reduce poverty and subsequent social and income polarization. Urbanism enhances technological development and policy innovation. Indeed, cities are now known as climate change first responders and local climate governance experiments appear as patchworks across cities globally.

To explore this debate, this article addresses the following questions: 1) what is the contribution of the urbanization process to climate change injustice?; 2) what are the dynamics of these relationships?; 3) given the contradictions between urbanization and climate change, how can urbanization be a solution to this challenge?; and, 4) what is needed to promote climate change justice with urbanization?

Definition of climate injustice and urbanization

Justice is a term embedded in the concepts of moral correctness, ethics, law and religion therefore it varies by culture. There are, however, some generalizable aspects of the concept based upon notions of equity and fairness as well as rights and responsibilities. Generally, to identify injustice, societies use the notions of distributive and procedural equity of benefits and harms to promote rights and identify responsibilities. With this in mind, we can define climate change injustice as the unequal and/or unfair contribution to or unequal experience of the effects of climate change and the systems of rights, obligations and values/norms that addresses these inequities.

Urbanization is the growing concentration of population into dense settlements with cascading effects on land use, environment and social change. Humans have been urbanizing for centuries, but over the past 50 years the transition has heated up and we are currently in a period of dramatic change. While it took 8,000 years to reach a global urbanization level of about 30%, which occurred about 1950 when some 740 million were living in the world’s cities, within the subsequent 50 years the world increased its level of urbanization to about 47% at which time there were over 2.8 billion people living in the worlds cities. Over the next 50 years we expect to add another 3.5 billion people to cities, at which time there will be about 6.3 billion people living in the dense settlements or about the same number as the total population in 2000! (United Nations, 2014)

The effects of the concentration of people and activities in dense settlements manifests in changes throughout the natural environment, the built environment and socio-economic and political spheres. As people, infrastructure and activity concentrate in cities, so do energy and material consumption demand, GHG and other waste emissions and social conditions, including such ills as poverty and inequality. As explored in the next section, these changes also occur unevenly across space.

Cities and unequal production of GHG emissions and uneven vulnerability

There are a number of different ways in which urban resident contribute unevenly to climate change. First, in general studies of urban emissions suggest that urban areas can be large sources of the greenhouse gases that create global warming. Data are sparse leaving researchers to depend on model outputs, but it is reasonable to estimate that urban activities account for about three quarters of all CO2 emitted from energy related consumption of fossil fuels (Grubler et al., 2012; IEA, 2008). This is all the more noticeable, as urban areas account for less than 3% of the world’s total terrestrial area (McGranahan et al., 2005).

Second, developed city residents produce 2 to 10 times more than those in the developing world. Residents in Sydney, Calgary, Stuttgart and several in the US urban areas produce more than 15 tons of carbon dioxide per capita per year. Compare this with the global average output of 4.8 metric tons of CO2 per capita. Residents of urban areas in developing countries typically produce even lower emissions per capita levels than the global average. For example, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Delhi produce, 4.3, 3.8, and 1.5 tons CO2 per capita, respectively (Hoornweg et al., 2011).

Rikshaw drivers waiting for passengers at the outskirts of Old Delhi. Image Source: Shutterstock
Rikshaw drivers waiting for passengers at the outskirts of Old Delhi. Image Source: Shutterstock

Third, GHG emission differences are not only between the developed and developing world, but are also observed across cities of different sizes and economic structures and functions. Larger cities produce more total emissions than smaller cities. One study suggests that the largest 50 cities in the world are responsible for approximately 40% of all urban greenhouse gas emissions (Marcotullio et al., 2013). Whether emissions per capita from larger cities are different from those of smaller cities remains debated. Differences in emissions between cities are also influenced by industrial sector share. Those heavily engaged in fossil fuel extraction or energy production typically have higher per capita emissions than other cities (Dhakal, 2009; Kennedy et al., 2011) .

New York City produces around 6.5 tons per capita (in 2012) about half the US national average (Dickinson et al., 2012). Yet within efficient New York City some individuals have much higher carbon footprints than others. That is, intra-urban differentials are often high, making a fourth source of inequality. For example, compare the energy related activities of billionaires or the cosmopolitan, jet set drawn to this city with those of lower-income or even homeless individuals. This diversity of emissions outputs, while probably magnified for New York is true for any city. Moreover, given globalization and rapid urbanization, intra-urban differences are increasing.

Not only are cities the source of inequitable levels of greenhouse gas emissions; urban residents are increasingly vulnerable to impacts from climate change. For example, we can expect that climate change will include increases in temperature, changes in precipitation, sea level rise and extreme events including heat waves, high winds and tropical cyclones and storm surges with massive impacts on cities around the world (UN-Habitat, 2011).

As with the production of GHG emissions, vulnerability for urban residents is unevenly distributed. A recent report that examined multiple risks for countries suggests that those in the developing world had larger percentages of their populations at risk from multiple hazards than residents of the developed world. Among the top 18 countries with high mortality risk from three or more hazards only one, Japan, was from the developed world. Among the top 49 countries with high mortality risk from two or more hazards, only Japan and South Korea, are from the developed world (Dilley et al., 2005). Seemingly, those in the developing world are more exposed to risk than those in the developed world. If we include the difference adaptive capacity, the differentials between levels of vulnerability increase. Research that has examined hazards globally for cities have found similar results; a higher number and percentage of those in developing world cities are more vulnerable than those in the developed world (de Sherbinin, Schiller, and Pulsipher, 2007; United Nations, 2012).

A rain affected family travels on a push-cart at a flooded area at Burns road due to heavy downpour of Monsoon Season in Karachi September 13, 2011. Image Source: Shutterstock
A rain affected family travels on a push-cart at a flooded area at Burns road due to heavy downpour of Monsoon Season in Karachi September 13, 2011. Image Source: Shutterstock

Flooding is a good case study example. Flooding is already the most frequent and greatest natural hazard for humankind and exacts the highest human and economic impact among hazards. Between 1980 and 2014, over 3,700 flooding events globally affected approximately 3.3 billion people, killed 230,000 and caused $619 million in damage. By one estimate, over 634 million people live in flood vulnerable low elevation coastal zones, 360 million of them in cities, most of which are in the developing world (McGranahan, Balk, and Anderson, 2007). That’s not to say that the developed world is immune. As New Yorkers know, extreme weather related flooding due to a tropical (super)storm, named Sandy, caused tremendous damage in the metropolitan region during October, 2012 (Bloomberg, 2013).

An important climate related threat for cities is heat waves. While the heat disasters of Chicago (1995) and Western Europe (2003) are by far the most well know, these patterns apply more broadly in the future. Given climate change temperature increases, the magnitude of impact may increase dramatically. In a worst case scenario, between 2080-2100, among a sample of 1,437 cities, there were over 30 million urban residents that currently live in cities that may experience average summer temperatures of over 100 degrees F (in Asia and Africa). There are another 56 million, largely in Asia, but also Africa, Latin America and North America, that may experience average summers between 95-100 degrees F. Finally, there are approximately 239 million people living in cities that will experience average summer temperatures of between 90-95F all over the world, excluding Oceania. That is, in 2010, over 326 million people lived in cities that may be extremely hot during the summer months (over 90 F). Of these approximately 83% live in developing Asia, 8% live in Africa, 4% live in Latin America and 4% live in North America (Figure 1).  And as with the production GHG emissions, the distribution of vulnerability within cities also varies. Studies demonstrate that the poor are often more exposed to climate risk and as a result have already been disproportionately affected by climate changes. We explore the relationship between cities and poverty and inequality in the next part.

Figure 1: This map has been produced using the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Climate System Model (CCSM) and UN data for approximately 1,500 cities. CCSM is a coupled climate model for simulating the earth's climate system. Composed of four separate models simultaneously simulating the earth's atmosphere, ocean, land surface and sea-ice, and one central coupler component, the CCSM allows researchers to conduct fundamental research into the earth's past, present and future climate states. (See http://www.cesm.ucar.edu/models/ccsm4.0/). The background colors are for current summer mean temperatures values (means for the months of June, July and August). They define a range of -15 C and 38.2 C for grid cells (2.5 arc minutes, approximately 5 km2) around the world. The dark blue is for the coolest summer means and the bright red for the hottest. On this we map the world's largest cities with population of over 300,000 (UN 2014). The temperatures for cities are identified using model outputs from the NCAR CCSM for the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP), 8.5 we average these temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere for the months of June, July and August (as in the background) and for the Southern Hemisphere for the months of December, January and February.
Figure 1: This map has been produced using the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Climate System Model (CCSM) and UN data for approximately 1,500 cities. CCSM is a coupled climate model for simulating the earth’s climate system. Composed of four separate models simultaneously simulating the earth’s atmosphere, ocean, land surface and sea-ice, and one central coupler component, the CCSM allows researchers to conduct fundamental research into the earth’s past, present and future climate states. (See http://www.cesm.ucar.edu/models/ccsm4.0/). The background colors are for current summer mean temperatures values (means for the months of June, July and August). They define a range of -15 C and 38.2 C for grid cells (2.5 arc minutes, approximately 5 km2) around the world. The dark blue is for the coolest summer means and the bright red for the hottest. On this we map the world’s largest cities with population of over 300,000 (UN 2014). The temperatures for cities are identified using model outputs from the NCAR CCSM for the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP), 8.5 we average these temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere for the months of June, July and August (as in the background) and for the Southern Hemisphere for the months of December, January and February.

Cities, poverty and social inequality

One important aspect of urbanization is the increasing concentration of poverty. Some scholars estimate that as the world urbanizes, an increasing share of the world’s poor will be in cities. Poverty enhances vulnerability in a number of ways. First, those in poverty often seek locations to live that are in risk exposed areas. For example, many of the poorest urban dwellers live along railway lines, close to shorelines, on steep hillsides or in swampy areas and floodplains. Moreover, the settlements in these locations are typically informal and without permanent infrastructure for water supply, sanitation, sewage and modern power. Second, without access to resources, including finances and public services, for example, the poor have greatly reduced adaptive capacity to address climate change. This includes both an awareness of impending risks (early warning) as well as the ability to recover after a shock.

Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. Image Source: Shutterstock
Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. Image Source: Shutterstock

Ironically, as the world’s poor urbanize, cities are also the locations of expanding wealthy populations, including the very rich. There are now more than 13.7 million people who have more than $1 million across 23 countries with a total wealth of approximately $52.6 trillion (Capgemini and RBC Wealth management, 2014). Many of these people are residents of the world’s globally connected cities located in both the developed and developing worlds. Hence, cities are increasingly home to high concentrations of millionaires living not far from local poor and homeless individuals, creating the so-called “dual city” phenomena.

Cities as solutions to climate change injustice

Given that cities are large sources of GHGs, create vulnerability and are increasingly locations of social ills, including poverty and income inequality, it’s no wonder that they have been denounced by some observers as the villains of environmental change and development (Brown, 2001; Srinivas, 2000). These arguments have helped to promote policies in developing countries to slow or even attempt to stop urbanization (UNFPA, 2007). Certainly, according to the overview provided above, it would seem that policies that attempt to address climate mitigation and vulnerability as well as poverty should target cities.

Changsha, Hunan, China. Image Source: Shutterstock
Changsha, Hunan, China. Image Source: Shutterstock

Yet it isn’t cities or urbanization that is at the heart of the distributions presented above. Rather organizing populations into dense settlements can actually provide benefits for addressing climate change. There are, at least, three ways this happens. First, in the analysis of the impact of urbanization on climate change, rather than focusing on urbanization effects, perhaps a more useful question is whether there are alternatives to this spatial organization pattern and whether these alternative patterns provide for better outcomes. Indeed, comparisons of urban and rural greenhouse gas emissions per capita emissions levels suggest that cities can be more efficient than non-urban areas. In the developed world, which is the major source of GHG emissions, residents of urban areas emit less (Table 1). This suggests that if population were spread out more evenly, each urban person would increase their emission levels. One of the reasons for the lower urban GHG per capita emissions levels is lower energy consumption in cities. Urbanization provides benefits over other forms of spatial development in terms of energy consumption efficiencies. Similarly, in terms of social ills, despite concentrating poverty, cities actually help to relieve it. For example scholars have estimated that urbanization in Brazil has helped to reduce the countries overall poverty and inequality during the past several decades (Martine et al., 2014).

Table 1: Comparative ranges of GHG emissions per capita for urban, non-urban and regions for 2000. Ranges were calculated for Scope 1 and Scope 1 and 2 conditions (for details see Marcotullio et al, 2013).

At the same time, as Table 1 also demonstrates, in some parts of the developing world, residents in cities have higher per capita GHG emissions than those in rural areas (see for example Asia). This is due to the dynamics of the urbanization process that starts with the concentration of energy consuming infrastructure in cities. As the global urbanization process progresses, however, cities become increasingly more efficient and managed more effectively. This has been the experience of the developed world and in certain parts of the developed world. As mentioned, the world is undergoing a great, second wave of urbanization. The first wave occurred between 1750 and 1950 and included a limited number of countries in North America, Oceania and Eastern Asia. All together countries in these parts of the world added approximately 410 million people to cities during this 200 year period. During the current wave, from 1950 to 2030 (less than half the time) the world will add about 3.6 billion urban residents. This huge second wave is much messier than the first due simply to sheer size, yet in some cities, the ability to manage has increased with evident outcomes. For example, several large developing world cities have achieved major air quality improvements (Begum, Biswas, and Hopke, 2008; Chelani and Devotta, 2007; Reynolds and Kandikar, 2008). Arguably, once urbanization rates start to flatten out, cities in the developing world will be able to manage more effectively.

Third, historically, urban citizens have been at the forefront of tackling environmental challenges. Climate change is not the first environmental problem to confront cities. Indeed, during the first wave of urbanization problems such as access to fresh water and sanitation and environmental health had terrible impact on residents. Urban environmental history in the USA tells us that cities had tremendous problems with horrendous conditions (Preston & Haines, 1991). Yet over time, solutions arose and they were first adopted in cities (Melosi, 1999).

These solutions may not have addressed the problems directly, however. Gordon McGranahan et al. (2001) and his colleagues suggest that as cities have developed, urban activity’s environmental harms have displaced spatially and temporally. That is, using the axiom, “the solution to pollution is solution” urban stakeholders in the developed world have simply attempted to disperse environmental harms over larger geographic spaces and into the future. Just as importantly, however, is that these “solutions” took decades to identify and implement. While being largely effective at the local level, regional and global environmental problems remain. The major environmental challenge for the urban age is to directly address the source of environmental harms, rather than looking for a larger sink for wastes (Tarr, 1996). The point here, however, is that in the past actions were taken, although over long periods of time and solutions were found, which at the time, were considered effective.

Hence, urbanization and local actions of urban citizens may be able to address global climate change more effectively than a dispersed population. Can organizing socially into dense settlements also address climate injustice? The arguments put forth in the paper suggest a cautionary optimism. Lowering impact and vulnerability through the urbanization process will help to address inequity, but it will not solve the problem.

Climate injustice is deeply embedded in social conditions and dynamics. Dense settlement helps to assuage some of these effects, such as providing employment and better living conditions than those found in rural communities, but lasting and effective change will not occur without radical changes in markets, governance and cultures. Furthermore, we know that while better urban energy infrastructures and technologies (those that evolve away from carbon-based fuels) are an important part of the solution, they are only one part. Development is associated with socio-institutional system complexity, which is correlated with increasing inequality. That is, as societies develop, they become more complex, hierarchies emerge and populations segregate along a number of different axes (wealth, status, income, power, etc). Moreover, as affluence increases so does consumption and wastes. With development and urban growth natural environments degrade. Therefore, in addition to concentrating populations and better technologies, urban governance must attempt to de-couple all these trends. It will only be with significant political actions and under strong institutional structures for the implementation and enforcement of these actions that the urbanization process and urban growth generally will be de-linked from climate change injustice. That is, climate injustice solutions have technical, social, cultural and ecological dimensions.

Can urbanism promote the type of governance that leads these changes? Some say yes, and that we see glimpses of how already. First, climate solutions are emerging from the developing world and are being picked up in cities globally. Low-carbon policies, such as Bus Rapid Transit and congestion pricing address which also addresses equitable accessibility were first adopted during the 1970s in developing world cities (Curitiba and Singapore). These solutions are now being picked in cities throughout the world.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) stop in Curitiba, Brazil. Image Source: Shutterstock
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) stop in Curitiba, Brazil. Image Source: Shutterstock

Second, urban stakeholders globally are organizing politically to combat climate change as well as implementing strategies to cope with it. Groups such as the C40, made up of a network of cities in the developed and developing world, are collaborating to promote actions to reduce GHG emissions. In less than a decade these groups have positioned themselves as effective international leaders in mitigating the risk of climate change for all urban residents. Indeed, some observers describe cities as climate change “first responders,” ahead of national governments (Rosenzweig and Solecki, 2014).

Third, a variety of individual climate governance programs and policies are emerging around the world in cities as “experiments.” As the global treaty process has stalled, climate governance has shifted away from the national scale to sub-national units including cities, with a diverse set of involved actors. Climate governance experiments are being deployed by local governments, nongovernmental organizations and private actors. They range from the level of individual buildings to neighborhoods to metropolitan areas. These experiments cover a range of issues related to climate change but are deeply concerned with climate justice.

Ironically, from the chaos of urbanization solutions are emerging on a number of different fronts instigated by dense living. At the same time, there remain significant obstacles to the lofty objectives embedded in the UN’s Millennium Development and Sustainable Development Goals. These obstacles are fundamentally based in our political-economic systems. The question is whether there is political will to use them and if so, what is the best way to manage the transitions. The role of the market and market institutions should not be under emphasized in controlling current conditions and future trends. While dense settlement can help to address the climate change and its injustice, without addressing the political-economic system by which goods and services are produced and distributed within and between cities, urbanization will not alone be enough to reach our goals of low carbon, energy security and high quality living for all. If environmental history is a guide, however, not only is urbanization our demographic destiny, but it may be the redemptive force providing the context for change.


Peter
Dr. Peter Marcotullio is a Professor in the Department of Geography, Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY).  He is also a member of the UGEC Scientific Steering Committee.
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References

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Header Image: Chidambaram, India.  Credit: Natalia Davidovich/Shutterstock.com

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