5 Cities: Will Their Green Gamble Pay Off?
By Isabelle Lee and Kate Bartlett
Have you noticed a trend this summer? No, not that face masks in many countries are making a comeback; we’re talking about the fires, devastating floods and heat waves of almost biblical proportions that have hit vast swathes of our world, from Canada to China to Siberia to Germany. There may still be a raging health pandemic, but we need to also pay attention to another deadly, global plague that’s getting worse, not better: climate change.
In today’s Daily Dose, we detail how five diverse cities (including one that’s yet to be built) are using innovative ideas to carve paths — not always successfully, mind you — in the pursuit of environmental sustainability. Read on to learn more!
Cold No More. If you’ve ever watched National Geographic’s Life Below Zero, in which hardy men and women tough it out in the icy wilds of the Alaskan frontier, you’ll be surprised to hear the region is under severe threat from a warming climate. In fact, the state has often been referred to as “ground zero” for climate change. Ever hotter temperatures are causing age-old glaciers to recede, sea ice to melt and more frequent, larger wildfires to burn across expanses of tundra. Temperatures in the state are increasing almost twice as fast as in the lower 48. The city of Anchorage, population 283,000, is on the front line, experiencing temperatures 1.5 degrees higher than normal during some winter months.
Action Stations. What are Alaskans doing about it? After Republican governor Mike Dunleavy came to office in 2018, he put his predecessor’s climate action plan on ice, so to speak. So the people of Anchorage did as Alaskans of yore have done and struck out on their own. Their climate change plan sets an 80% emissions reduction goal for 2050, outlines a shift to electric vehicles and renewable energy and encourages residents to form community gardens to improve food security. Now Alaskans also hope President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan will provide new ways of funding efforts to combat climate change and pursuing forward-looking clean energy projects.
Results Already. Since the city’s municipal authority, the Anchorage Assembly, voted in its ambitious climate action agenda two years ago, has any progress been made? Yes, according to their most recent annual report. “We expanded our renewable energy generation, won grants for innovative clean energy projects [and] expanded opportunities for residents to engage in climate action,” the report reads. In December, before the U.S. rejoined in the Paris climate agreement, Anchorage signed the “We Are Still In” declaration, confirming their commitment to the goals of the Paris accord. In a short time, Anchorage has upgraded over 16,000 street lamps to LEDs, and long-term loans are now available to businesses seeking to establish clean energy projects. The city also received a grant to fund its first electric garbage trucks and purchased hybrid-electric police vehicles.
Carbon-Free Philosophy. As cities grow both in number of residents and by physical size, they face a conundrum in terms of how to control and reduce their carbon footprint. Copenhagen finds itself way ahead and is on track to become the world’s first carbon-free city. Since committing to the idea more than a decade ago, residents have rallied to the cause. The city logs a carbon output of 2 million tons, which is modest compared to other (albeit larger) cities like Seoul, which in 2018 was ranked the worst carbon emission offender. But why should cities bother? Among the principles agreed upon in the 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries, is a pledge to reduce all signatories’ carbon outputs.
Bike Is Best. A chief avenue to carbon neutrality is reducing the number of vehicles on the streets, and that’s where Copenhagen is ahead of the game. As a city of biking lanes, bike jams and bike-only bridges, you’re more likely to be hit by a bike than by a car, but how did the city manage this? It invested 1 billion krone ($113 million) building out infrastructure for bikers and pedestrians, effectively relegating the vehicle to third place. To be sure, other significant emissions culprits remain, but doing what they can to promote two-wheel transport helps shift residents’ attitudes too.
Show Me the Numbers. As of 2019, 62% of Copenhagen residents brave the chill to commute on their bikes, up 36% from 2012. In 2016, the number of bikes outnumbered cars on the city’s roads for the first time. The most recent figure is that Danes own 6.6 times more bikes than cars. While bikes are good for the environment, they are also good for the health of the people riding them. The Danish finance ministry estimates that each time someone spends 1 kilometer (.6 of a mile) in the saddle, the city makes 4.80 krone ($0.77). How? Cyclists take less sick leave (as a nation, Denmark’s bike-first posture helps it save an estimated €40 million or $6.4 million annually on health care costs. What’s more, cyclists spend more in the shops than motorists. Cities such as New York, Lisbon and Oslo are all following Copenhagen’s lead.
A Smokey Situation. With an estimated 70% of Mongolia’s grazing lands impacted by desertification that took hold as far back as the 1950s, by 2019, 600,000 nomadic people and herders were forced to leave the country’s vast steppe and pitch their tents around Ulaanbaatar, the capital. The tents, known as gers, and other forms of shelter have been heated by coal-burning stoves, wreaking havoc on the city’s air quality. As a result, Ulaanbaatar struggles with some of the most polluted air on earth. In 2018, levels of dangerous particulates reached 133 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. In 2019, 80% of the city’s air pollution resulted from coal-burning in the settlements on the city’s outskirts, which housed 60% of the city’s residents.
Putting Out Fires. On May 15, 2019, Mongolia banned the use of raw coal, the predominant fuel source used by low-income families to keep warm during the winter and the culprit of Ulaanbaatar’s notoriously awful air quality. They also introduced refined coal briquettes to the market, subsidizing them so the briquettes would be close to the price of raw coal. The Asian Development Bank approved a $160 million program to help improve air quality in the embattled city by working with the existing government program, which began in 2017 and extends through 2025, providing supplemental funding and other aid. Other programs like Sub Center are working to improve city infrastructure and move families out of gers and into housing developments that would further reduce air pollution.
Success, Until COVID. While banning raw coal was a positive step, and air quality measured in October 2019 registered an improvement, the ban failed to address the reason families were turning to raw coal in the first place. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and triggered a countrywide economic shutdown, many in Ulaanbaatar couldn’t afford the refined briquettes and turned instead to cheap flammable materials like trash or raw coal found on the sly. Despite the ban on using raw coal, by October 2020 Ulaanbaatar’s air quality still ranked as the worst in the world. Read more on OZY.
Food Shortage. Food insecurity is Istanbul’s most pressing climate-change-related threat, according to scientist Levent Kurnaz. Drought and water shortages are threatening agricultural producers across Turkey, who supply Istanbul with produce, and stressing the entire food system from the top down. Moreover, water shortages and extreme weather events exacerbated by global warming like severe droughts also cause the cost of food to skyrocket, which detrimentally impacts residents of Istanbul who have limited access to goods or are unable to afford the sky-high prices. In April, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even launched an aid campaign that delivered potatoes and onions to needy families to address the growing crisis.
Ancient Gardens. While modernizing agriculture is one proposed solution to fixing food insecurity in the city, some of Istanbul’s most enterprising farmers have been leaning on one another. Instead of relying on stores or food trucked hundreds of miles from Anatolia, they have been growing their own food right in the city center, alongside and among the ancient city’s Byzantine-era walls. Surrounded by walls more than 1,600 years old, are some of the oldest urban gardens in the world. The narrow green areas between the high walls are the perfect setting for small farmers who tend the Yedikule market gardens. With the Yedikule Fortress as a backdrop, some 200 market gardeners are repurposing public spaces to grow food that feeds their communities and families while earning them money.
The Struggle Goes On. Same day harvesting means the produce they grow is fresher and cheaper than what’s available in supermarkets or on store shelves, something that has turned the farmers into a community staple. The gardens also provide income for the farmers, while utilizing age-old infrastructure and providing a link to an ancient way of life. But their way of life has been threatened as Turkey pushes to modernize its largest city. The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality owns the mile-long stretch of green space; the farmers in turn pay a fee to use the land. But while the municipality can give, it also has the power to take away. In January 2016, authorities declared that farming would no longer be permitted along the walls, and within weeks had set about knocking down several sheds used by the farmers. Concerned citizens and environmentalists, however, quickly stepped in (Istanbul is home to a robust green movement). People rallied to the farmers’ cause and forced the municipality to formalize the arrangements with a number of those farming the area.
akon city, senegal
Poverty and Unemployment. The closest hospital to the impoverished coastal town of Mbodiène is an hour away in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. There are no paved roads in the town. The area is mainly populated with fishermen and farmers, and many young people are unemployed. So it’s hard to imagine Mbodiène being transformed into an environmentally friendly, solar-powered, futuristic “smart city” of glass and chrome skyscrapers.
Superstar Solution. But that’s the wildly ambitious, eponymous brainchild of a Senagalese American R&B superstar. Born in the U.S. but with family roots in Senegal, Akon wants to give back to his homeland and says he plans to do so in the greenest way possible. His Akon City, he says, will not only benefit the Sengalese but also be a haven for a Black American diaspora who face racism in the U.S. Residents of the city will use a crypto-currency dubbed “Akoin.” The singer has selected Mbodiène as the location for his $6 billion project, which is expected to take years to build, and Akon City will be certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The singer-turned-philanthropist’s company, Akon Lighting Africa, already provides electricity to rural villages in 14 countries.
Results Are Out. The jury’s still out on the project, which many are comparing to the fictional land of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther. Skeptics note that despite promises to create jobs, Akon City is being designed by an Abu Dhabi-based architect and is due to be built by a U.S. developer. Construction is slated to start this year, and another African nation, Uganda, has already asked the “Smack That” singer to build a similar city there.