Published on Sustainable Cities

Guns Don’t Kill People: Nor do Cities Generate 70% of the World’s GHG Emissions

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Sooner or later, anyone living in the US will hear a gun rights advocate say that ‘guns don’t kill people, people do.’ Semantics, but true. While we’re on semantics, strictly speaking, cities are not responsible for GHG emissions. Rather the people, or more specifically, those earning the most money, almost all of whom live in cities, are responsible for the vast majority of the world’s GHG emissions. But that is not nearly as easy to communicate, and messaging is important.

car exhaustOn cities and GHG emissions, what is the message we really need to communicate? First, it’s true, if you add up all the GHG emissions – direct (e.g., out the back end of our car) and indirect (e.g., the trees cut down for pasture or the belches from the cattle used in our hamburgers) – residents of cities are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s GHG emissions (and likely more than 80%). This should not be much of a surprise, as these same people are responsible for more than 80% of the world’s economy. GHG emissions are a by-product of the stuff we buy and do.

Second, within the same city per capita, GHG emissions can vary significantly. This variation is most influenced by affluence. The poor, almost everywhere, emit almost no GHG emissions. But within the same city, residential emissions for residents of roughly the same level of affluence can vary by a factor of 10! (see the case for Greater Toronto for example).

Third, up to now talking about a city’s GHG emissions was a very difficult ‘apples to oranges’ comparison. But fortunately this is well on the way to be remedied with the recent Global Protocol for Community GHG emissions recently released for comment by C40, ICLEI and WRI. Already cities like Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, New York, Seattle and Calgary are leading with credible, consistent and verifiable citywide GHG inventories. We need to thank these cities and encourage more to follow suit.

Finally, and most importantly, blaming cities for GHG emissions is not helpful, nor strictly speaking, accurate. Cities don’t cause pollution, people do. What is extremely helpful though is realizing that well-designed, well-managed cities that are inclusive and forward looking, is the only hope we have for true sustainable development. Getting there as fast as possible needs to be our common goal.

Over the next few decades there will be tremendous finger pointing and positioning by negotiators, business, and organizations on issues like GHG emissions. This is only natural as there’s money (and pride) involved, and the issue is complex. Good communication will be critical. Semantics aside, we in the cities need to talk this over, and figure out fast, how to build the better cities we need today.

Editor’s Note: Evidence suggests that ‘high income’ populations, defined by the World Bank as having per capita incomes above $12,275, are responsible for the majority of the world’s GHG emissions. Almost all higher income earners live in cities.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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