breaking news

Final: Oklahoma State 13, Texas 10 (OT)

Commentary: Cities can work on climate change — with the right policies


From New York to Houston to Anchorage, hundreds of mayors reacted to President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement by reasserting or even intensifying their commitment to fighting climate change. They represent a diverse group that is potentially large enough to contribute to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

This is encouraging, but we must recognize that city efforts to curb emissions are not substitutes for national climate policy, and they pose several unique challenges and drawbacks.

First, due to their limited size, city climate initiatives neglect major emissions producing sectors. Agriculture was responsible for 9 percent of U.S. emissions in 2015, and it overwhelmingly takes place outside of city limits. Similarly, some of the most emissions-intensive industrial activities, such as cement production and natural resource extraction like fracking, are not concentrated in cities.

Even many power plants that generate electricity are many miles from the cities they serve. Intercity freight transportation and air travel comprise a substantial fraction of national transportation emissions, but are unlikely to fall within the purview of city regulations.

LIKE US ON FACEBOOK: Our Viewpoints page brings the latest commentaries to your Facebook feed.

Second, city policies would be rendered ineffective if sources of emissions relocate to evade them. Researchers use the term “carbon leakage” to describe a scenario in which stringent climate regulation in one country causes companies to move their production to countries with weaker regulations. If some U.S. cities adopt ambitious climate policies, a similar dynamic could unfold of companies relocating to other cities or to independent municipalities on the city’s periphery. The latter could exacerbate urban sprawl and increase vehicle travel, thereby raising emissions.

Climate change is fundamentally different from local environmental problems such as air pollution that cities have historically confronted. The impact of carbon dioxide is the same no matter where on Earth it is emitted, so merely moving emissions around accomplishes nothing.

Finally, given their limited scope, cities often pursue untraditional mitigation strategies that are unlikely to be cost-effective. For example, Austin is currently overhauling its land development code in hopes of reducing emissions by creating denser urban neighborhoods that decrease vehicle travel. But research shows that higher population densities are associated with lower emissions only in places with densities far exceeding those present in Austin.

Preliminary findings of my current study show that smart growth regulations are a costly way to reduce emissions because they tend to raise housing prices. The feasibility of implementing broader, market-oriented policies like carbon prices or emissions trading systems in cities remains uncertain. These mechanisms are more cost-effective, but cities in conservative states can expect state governments to resist attempts to expand local policy action.

Texas recently pre-empted Austin ordinances on ridesharing services and sanctuary cities, for instance, and we are likely to see similar city-state conflicts on climate change measures in the years ahead.

But despite these obstacles, cities can fight climate change effectively if leaders enact regulations that are logical at the city level. The most crucial role that cities should play is to enable and encourage residents to adopt environmentally friendly technologies and behaviors.

MORE VIEWPOINTS: The Statesman’s editorial writers and columnists tackle local and national issues.

Electric cars are a useful example. Cities can install public charging stations, incentivize workplaces to offer them, or mandate their deployment through building codes. Perks such as access to HOV and express lanes or free street parking reserved for alternative fuel vehicles would make them more attractive to consumers. Cities can lead the way by incorporating alternative fuel vehicles into municipal fleets.

Even within Texas, cities have made widely varying progress along this line. Whereas Dallas Area Rapid Transit has converted most of its buses to cleaner compressed natural gas, the Houston Metro fleet is dominated by diesel buses, although it unveiled its first electric bus late last year. By comparison, in China, Shenzhen has more than 10 million residents and will feature an entirely electric bus fleet by the end of this year. It is one area where American cities can and should improve dramatically. Other examples include offering incentives to residents to lower costs of rooftop solar or other energy efficiency improvements, and expanding bike lanes to make zero-carbon commuting more viable.

It is promising that our cities are stepping up to the plate, but city leaders need to carefully plan the policies they enact.

Leibowicz is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas.

Leibowicz is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

In ‘Hue 1968,’ author examines a key chapter in the Vietnam War
In ‘Hue 1968,’ author examines a key chapter in the Vietnam War

Like his epochal best-seller “Black Hawk Down,” Mark Bowden’s “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam” is the story of a battle. Like “Black Hawk Down,” it is smart, well-reported and hypnotic in spots. Also like “Black Hawk Down,” it might very well become a motion picture (Michael...
Herman: Me, jury duty and the lawyer’s monkey
Herman: Me, jury duty and the lawyer’s monkey

I love jury duty. I’d do it every week if they’d let me (and they shouldn’t). It’s Americans at their best, most of them sincerely striving to do the right thing in the name of truth, justice and the American way. So it was with patriotic glee that I recently was number 18 of 27 people who showed up as potential jurors in Victor...
INSIGHT: How Russians pretended to be Texans — and Texans believed them

In early 2016, while researching some of the most popular U.S. secession groups online, I stumbled across one of the Russian-controlled Facebook accounts that were then pulling in Americans by the thousands. At the time, I was writing on Russia’s relationship with American secessionists from Texas, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. These were people who...
Letters to the editor: Oct. 22, 2017

Re: Oct. 17 article, “As jump in water bills riles Circle C residents, few answers from city.” I laughed out loud after reading Austin Energy spokesman Robert Cullick’s statement that “we have very accurate meter readings.” In February, they misread my water meter by transposing one number and then overbilled me for 2...
Facebook comments: Oct. 22, 2017

As reported by the American-Statesman’s Claire Osborn, a Georgetown woman was accused of falsely claiming she had no income when she applied for health benefits, an arrest affidavit said. Zona Nelson, 65, was charged with theft by deception. Officials with the Williamson County and Cities Health District told the sheriff’s office that Nelson...
More Stories