Cities are unfairly blamed for greenhouse gas emissions by misguided politicians and well-meaning people who listen to them, and this threatens efforts to truly impact climate change, warns a study in the October 2008 issue of the journal Environment and Urbanization. The paper says cities are commonly blamed for 75 to 80 percent of emissions but that the true value is around half that and the potential for cities to help address climate change is being overlooked because of this error.

United Nations agencies, former US President Bill Clinton’s climate change initiative and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have all claimed that between 75 and 80 per cent of emissions come from cities even though data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that only 40 percent of all greenhouse gases are from human activities generated within cities.

“Blaming cities for greenhouse gas emissions misses the point that cities are a large part of the solution,” says the paper’s author, David Satterthwaite, a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). “Well planned, well governed cities can provide high living standards that do not require high consumption levels and high greenhouse gas emissions.”

Satterthwaite says agriculture and deforestation account for another 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and the final 30 percent are from heavy industry, coal, oil or gas fuelled power stations located in non-metropolitan areas and wealthy households, like politicians live in when they are misstating data.

The paper also highlights how it can be misleading to allocate greenhouse gas emissions to places at all. For instance, emissions from power stations should be allocated to those that consume the electricity, not the places where the power stations are located. Emissions generated by industries would therefore be shared by the person consuming the goods the industries produce.

“Consumer demand drives the production of goods and services, and therefore the emission of greenhouse gases,” says Satterthwaite. “Allocating emissions to consumers rather than producers shows that the problem is not cities but a minority of the world’s population with high-consumption lifestyles. A large proportion of these consumers live not in cities but in small towns and rural areas.”

Allocating greenhouse gas emissions to consumers increases the share of global emissions from Europe and North America, which makes self-loathing activists happy, but also clarifies the very low emissions per person of most city inhabitants in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In general, wealthy people outside cities are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than those in cities as they have larger homes that need to be heated or cooled, more automobiles per household and greater automobile use.

“The way cities are designed and run can make a big difference,” says Satterthwaite. “Most cities in the United States have three to five times the gasoline use per person of most European cities but not three to five times the living standards.”

Satterthwaite points out that cities offer many opportunities to reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions, such as by promoting walking, bicycling and public transport and having building designs that require much less energy for heating and cooling.

“Achieving the needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide depends on seeing and acting on the potential of cities to combine a high quality of life with low greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.