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When it comes to combatting climate change, we find ourselves at a crossroad.
Are we truly ready to abandon the hope of avoiding catastrophic impacts by curtailing global warming to 1.5 degrees? And how do we reconcile the conflict between our evident appetite for ever greater urbanism and the risk that urbanism poses to our planet if not managed thoughtfully and prudently?
Together, we are facing an enormous challenge, and there is a dangerous likelihood that at this rate, we won't achieve the Paris Climate Agreement. But we also know that if we admit defeat now, we'll be in a much worse position in 2030 (and 2050). Every fraction of a degree counts, so we should be doing everything we can to try to reach this goal, despite the long odds.
It is a Northern Hemisphere conceit to say that, to arrest global warming, we must arrest urbanism. It is neither practical nor moral to deny the undoubted benefits of urbanisation to those regions that are yet to embrace it – or have done so recently enough that it has not yet delivered the resources to tackle climate change.
So, what needs to happen to give us a chance to keep below 1.5 degrees of global warming without abandoning urbanism and what role does the engineering sector need to play in making this possible? Here at Arcadis, we have a clear message on this front. We know what we need to do and where we need to do it; the next step is the how. To catalyze real progress on climate action, we need much better data about the sustainability performances of our cities, because each city has its own unique sustainability challenges to overcome.
Only custom-tailored approaches can help cities take advantage of unique opportunities to mitigate climate change in their local geography and help their citizens adapt to the unique challenges climate change will bring them.
Take for example the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index 2022 (SCI). Ranking 100 of the world’s leading cities, the SCI examines cities across three pillars of sustainability: planet, people and profit. And although each pillar is weighted equally, we see from the SCI findings that a city can be dominant within a pillar, but still fall in the overall ranking. It is the combination of each pillar that determines how well a city performs overall. This proves that a granular level of data on cities is necessary to create practical action in cities to combat climate change.
Though all three factors are weighted equally in the rankings, an intriguing result is the fact that the data shows that putting the planet and people first is a more reliable road to prosperity than putting profit first as long as there is enough profit to finance the necessary progress and keep the city attractive to investors. Of the 20 cities at the top of the SCI, seven rank in the top ten for Planet and three rank in the top ten for People. The lesson we can take away is that focusing on planet and people solutions can lead to economic payoff and growth, preparing a city to succeed in rising sustainable economies of the future.
Oslo leading the way
While there is no utopian city, there are cities that stand out, and Oslo, at the very top of the SCI is a good example. So, what is it that drives Oslo’s long-term prosperity?
To top the SCI, you need to be an all-rounder. Across all the indicators in the SCI Oslo only really has four weaknesses relative to most other sustainable cities: the quality of its transport infrastructure, the level of per capita greenhouse gas emissions, affordability and job quality. Obviously, these are all very important aspects of a sustainable city and the weaknesses are only relative, but it shows that no city is perfect. In fact, all of the UK & Ireland’s cities beat Oslo in terms of the quality of their transport infrastructure. However, Oslo beats all UK&I cities when it comes to the sustainability of its transport.
In People terms, Oslo has excellent amenities, work-life balance, income equality and low crime.
In Planet terms, it has clean air, strong bicycle infrastructure, renewable energy, sustainable transport, green spaces and progressive public climate policy. It is likely to beat any individual UK&I city in any one of these indicators showing its all-round strength.
In Profit terms, Oslo fades a little in comparison to the US, but nevertheless boasts excellent connectivity, ease of doing business and commercial transport / ecommerce infrastructure. Even its economic development measures and employment levels are comfortably above par.
A tale of two cities
Many cities in the UK & Ireland do several of these things well, but to be truly prosperous over the long-term, cutting through the weaknesses to deliver sustainability across all pillars is required.
So how do two of our highest performing cities compare?
London performs very highly in the SCI, coming 6th overall and having no particular weak pillar, with scores near the top of Profit, Planet and People. Its main strength is the Planet pillar where it ranks 6th.
The service offered by London’s transport infrastructure and the access to that infrastructure is close to world leading. However, the sustainability of its transport infrastructure trails behind the service. By international comparison London scores well for sustainable transport – 15th overall – however lots of European cities score very close to London meaning that it must invest to remain sustainable in relative terms. Hong Kong, Oslo and Stockholm score far higher than London in this category and other, perhaps more surprising cities also beat London here – Bogota, Lima and Wuhan for example.
Energy & Environment
From an environmental perspective, London is still a significant polluter, with greenhouse gas emissions per capita on a par with Shanghai and Cape Town. It places firmly in the middle of the rankings here. However, London scores very strongly for climate policy, and if it is able to quickly turn intention into reality and secure the necessary investment to deliver widespread sustainability gains it promises to maintain or even improve its score here. This underscores the need for post-Brexit, post-Covid London to remain a highly investable city. Other key strengths for London include green spaces and waste management.
A particular strength for London is its profit pillar business metrics. London is among the best cities in the world when it comes to economic development, city connectivity and ease of doing business. The only area within the profit pillar where it shows a clear need for investment or policy focus is around affordability where London is ranked 88th in the SCI.
Glasgow scores a very impressive 13th in the overall SCI, behind only London in the UK, beating many other English cities in not just one but all pillars. The stand-out strength for Glasgow is the People pillar where it is the world leader. It’s also among the most affordable cities in the developed world, even more so than several Chinese cities.
Glasgow’s impressive performance in the People pillar is built on a very high performance across the board, from amenities like transport, internet, education and healthcare through to its healthy work-life balance. The only clear challenge that the Index picks up in the People pillar is around income inequality which is an area to focus attention. Here Glasgow’s peers are cities like Lagos and Bangkok (but also Rome and Wellington)
Transport & infrastructure
Glasgow’s transport infrastructure is comparable to many other UK cities and suffers exactly the same challenges – its sustainability lags behind London. Its connectivity is also in the lower half of the index, above Leeds and Birmingham but far below London and on a par with Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires.
Energy & environment
Glasgow has clean air, plenty of green spaces, excellent waste management and low environmental exposure. However its energy mix, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions are all critically important areas where investment is needed. Glasgow and Edinburgh are joint bottom of the table of UK cities when it comes to greenhouse gases.
Achieving true prosperity
Arcadis has paired up cities and clients from across the globe where we have seen opportunities for each to learn from the other, and copy/paste best practices. Any city on this index can and should derive inspiration from the others on how to accelerate their transition to the net zero world, in a way that improves quality of life for all.
I have been inspired by individual examples of cities and mayors who have effectively engaged and mobilized their citizenry around the urgency of how climate change is impacting their life. They have leveraged that to accelerate the transition of their city, driving success across aspects of planet, people, and profit – and this is evident in their rising rapidly in the ranks of the SCI, giving us excellent examples of how true prosperity is within our grasp.
Unlock the stories of prosperous cities by downloading the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index 2022 here.