Europe’s Cities Show How to Lower Emissions While Raising Living Standards

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From 1990-2005, Europe was the only region of the world that managed to reduce its per-capita carbon footprint while increasing its standard of living.

How did the Europeans do it?

One big answer is the European city. The majority—76 percent—of Europeans are “urbanized.” These aren’t the mass-transit-less cities blighted by what the United Nations calls “low-density suburbs surrounding city cores, commonly referred to as ‘urban sprawl‘.”

They’re on a totally different model—livable, dense cores, with excellent mass-transit systems. Turin, Italy, and Bordeaux, France, have invested billions of euros in a network of trams with links to the high-speed intercity European railway network. In Bordeaux, traffic has dropped by 30 percent. With fewer cars on the road, bicycling is far more pleasant: ridership has tripled. Turin, meanwhile, has been re-structuring its inner city, restoring it to architectural prominence.

On a smaller scale, Güssing, Austria, has cut its carbon emissions by over 90 percent simply by banning fossil-fuel use for public buildings, and it uses an innovative technology to convert waste-wood to natural gas. There’s a lesson there for those wary of command-and-control measures—they sometimes work just fine.

In Germany, Freiburg uses a command-and-control directive to make energy efficiency for homes mandatory: German law stipulates a maximum waste of 75 kilowatt-hours per square meter, “roughly a quarter of the energy lost from a typical Victorian house in Britain,” but in early 2008 Freiburg was mandating 65kWh/m2, while contemplating lower figures. The city’s inhabitants rely on trams and bicycles to move about town, using car-shares when necessary.

Other German cities have simply banned older automobiles and trucks, an approach Amsterdam has emulated. The absence of such older vehicles means less particulate matter in the air, making cities that much more livable—and healthier too.

Last year, Milan passed anti-congestion legislation, charging vehicles up to 10 Euro to enter the city center. Letizia Moratti, Milan’s mayor, has publicly predicted a 30 percent reduction in pollution and a 10 percent reduction in traffic. Electric and hybrid cars are permitted to enter the restricted zone without paying a fee of any kind. The money the tax raises is funneled toward buses, cycle paths, and green vehicles.

The legislation essentially copies the ground-breaking London anti-congestion scheme, implemented in 2003, which has successfully reduced both traffic and carbon dioxide emissions in the London metro area.

Such initiatives have contributed to a groundswell of support across the European urban landscape for radical approaches to climate change on a decentralized, municipal scale.

Several months ago, over 350 mayors across Europe signed onto a covenant to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, including large, core metropolises such as Paris, Brussels, Rome, Stuttgart, Barcelona and Nottingham. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported the idea. It’s worth noting that the massive northeast conurbation that includes New York City had one of the smallest carbon footprints in the United States in 2005.

This is in line with studies such as the one carried out by David Dodman that have suggested that urban areas in general emit far less carbon-emissions per-capita than non-urban areas. Per-capita emissions in New York and Barcelona are only a third of the national average for the U.S. and Spain, respectively, and those of London are around half of Britain’s national average.

The lessons are clear. As urban theorist Mike Davis notes,

The city is our ark in which we might survive the environmental turmoil of the next century. Genuinely urban cities are the most environmentally efficient form of existing with nature that we possess because they can substitute public luxury for private or household consumption.

However, Davis’s view is somewhat gloomier than that suggested by optimistic studies of urban per-capita greenhouse emissions like Dodson’s. Cities draw much of their consumption from agricultural or manufacturing hinterlands, with supply chains thousands of miles long. Anyone looking at the “made in X East Asian city” sticker on most manufactured goods, knows this. The carbon-cost of such goods is often counted in the producing and not the consuming location.

It is for such reasons that restructuring cities’ infrastructures must go hand-in-hand with a restructuring of regional planning. Cities must be both “genuinely urban,” as Davis writes, and surrounded by greenbelts, the “agricultural estates” of the city that urban critic and polymath Lewis Mumford spent his life advocating. Such a style of planning will result in much shorter supply chains—and is probably part of the reason Latin America’s countries, robust food producers, have such low carbon-footprints.

It’s a big change, but far from an impossible one.


See also:

One Move that Can Reduce Your Carbon Footprint by 70%

Life Expectancy, Carbon Footprints and a Happy Planet

What Is a City of the Future, Anyway?

Why Cities & CEOs Can’t Relax

U.S. Cities Get Creative to Reinvent Mass Transit

(Photos clockwise from top: Freiberg by Metro Centric/Flickr; Freiberg by Yellow Book Ltd/Flickr; London by Venturout/Flickr)