Phoenix is one of the country’s fastest-growing big cities, a sprawling metropolis in an increasingly arid region where federal water managers are currently proposing unprecedented cuts to water supplies from the Colorado River. The abundance of solar energy in the Southwest and their potential for density give them a chance to be ahead of other cities in solving the climate crisis and resource scarcity.
Only if it happens in the right direction.
Questions about urban centers — how they can grow sustainably and how poor city development policy contributes to the climate crisis — have long occupied Kevin Gurney, a professor at Northern Arizona University who researches the carbon cycle, climate science and climate policy. Since the 1990s, he has contributed to regular reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The United Nations publishes periodic reports by climate experts around the globe on the state of climate change. The most recent version was shockingly blunt.
This report, which was released earlier in the month, shows that global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 5%. mustPeaking almost immediately. Fossil fuel use must stop by the end of the decade. Without this transition, it will be impossible to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — and the world will be faced with the most catastrophic potential outcomes of the climate crisis. The prospects for the future are not promising. According to the report, global greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise by 14% in 2030, even if there are already emissions reduction goals. The IPCC also included a chapter on the social and political obstacles to a transition away fossil fuels.
Gurney was responsible for the Urban Systems section of the most recent report. He spoke to High Country News about urban planning solutions, city development in the Southwest, and whether — after three decades of working on IPCC reports — he’s frustrated at the lack of urgency on the part of the world’s governments.
This conversation was edited for clarity, length, and clarity.
HCN: What are the effects of poor urban growth?
KG:Most urban infrastructure lasts for decades. Once it’s built, you effectively lock in a preordained emissions pathway, because that infrastructure is going to be used, and that sunk initial investment needs to be recouped. The planet is currently in crisis and the window for avoiding these types of locked-in effects is becoming smaller. We have very limited time now to maintain the 1.5-degree Celsius trajectory or 2-degree trajectory.
We believe that no city will make a decision about development with climate change as its sole decision point. Cities make complex decisions about the development of their resources and how to allocate them. Climate change and greenhouse gases emissions should be included in that decision matrix.
HCN: The Southwest cities are rapidly growing. Based on your research, what are the conditions for climate-friendly growth?
KG:The report first states that 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by urban areas. In almost all scenarios used by the IPCC, this share will increase over time.
Three major mitigation items in cities are worth highlighting. The first is energy supply, especially electricity. Now, cities often don’t have utter control over their electricity supply. But since they are the majority consumers of electricity — and some cities have their own utilities — that’s a good place to start. It’s the same old thing we’ve been saying for years: We’ve made some transitions from coal to natural gas, but we need to move to renewables. While solar and wind have seen their costs drop and are now taking up a greater share of the grid, we need to accelerate this transition. We need to make rooftop solar more efficient. Arizona is blessed with a lot of solar energy but not many clouds. This fact should be taken advantage of. And utilities must be involved.
The cost of solar and wind has fallen and they have begun to take up a larger part of the grid. However, we need to accelerate this transition.
The second is the road sector. Road emissions can make up the largest sector of emissions in many cities. We need integrated urban planning to reduce commute distances and shifts from individual passenger cars to rideshare, subway or bus. We also need to electrify the on-road transport sector. The problem is, of course getting older cars to turn over. I think right now, in the United States, maybe we’ve had 1% penetration of electric vehicles, which is significant. It wasn’t so long ago that electric vehicles first entered the market. It is necessary to think about policies and programs that will accelerate the fleet turnover.
The last one is buildings. And electricity supply affects buildings. But there’s also lots of room for improving buildings’ efficiency.
HCN: Your chapter stressed the importance of integrated planning to ensure that all solutions work. Can you explain what this means?
KG: The IPCC reports, along with many analyses, tends to go sector by sector. “Here’s what we do in the road sector, here’s what we do in the residential sector,” and so on. There’s an increasing recognition that in cities, mitigation really needs to be thought about systemically. So, when you’re thinking about a development, you think, “OK, what’s the impact of the roads that are going to be needed? What does this mean in terms of greenhouse gases emissions? What about infrastructure? Can we go electric without natural gas pipelines? What happens to the electricity supply if we do? What does this mean for water?”
Planning must include this integrated aspect. All components of energy and materials that are required to support urban growth should be considered. It is easy to lose sight of the interconnectedness of different sectors, which can lead to a blind spot.
In cities like Phoenix, there is a lot of emphasis on large-scale expansion. We must also increase our efforts in urban integration. That means bringing people closer to their jobs through mixed residential-commercial spaces, more pedestrian-oriented portions of town. There aren’t a lot of different types of modes (of transportation in Phoenix), things like light rail, buses, public transportation. The more extensive your development is, the more miles you’ll be able to drive.
Cities are not islands. They are located within a metro area, and then they are within a country, or within a single state. While cities have some autonomy, they must also work within what we refer to as the multi-governance framework. Cities must not only integrate things in their planning, but also scale up that integration. Cities need to collaborate with each other, work with their region and find solutions at all levels. This is complex, but in the end leads to greater change when it’s systemic, because it can be sustained.
HCN: You’ve worked in global climate research since the 1990s, and the action needed to combat the crisis has not occurred. Do you ever despair?
KG: I don’t despair, because that’s just not my nature. But “frustrating” is the word I would use. We’ve done the work, and the message is out there. I think what’s frustrating is the fact that it’s become so politically partisan. That, to me, is the saddest part of all this, because, as scientists working on this problem, it’s never a political issue for us. We’re trying to establish what is true and what is not true, what is based in facts.
There are lots of opportunities here to do things that are beneficial to economies … and quality of life for so many people.
The other part of the frustration is that, along with the unpleasant reality of this problem, it’s always been coupled to a certain modicum of opportunity. There are many opportunities to do things that benefit economies and are also beneficial in many other ways to the independence of nation-states, energy independence, and quality of life of so many people.
Let’s use Arizona as an example, because this transition poses tremendous opportunity. We have plenty of natural resources that can be used to solve this problem. Additionally, we can also create significant industrial growth in clean energy. It’s a pity that we’re not seeing that, partly because of the fear that comes from political messaging and the manipulation of the reality. Arizona has so many opportunities in the space, and it’s so frustrating to see us not grab them and bring those economic opportunities to the state. Fear, misinformation, and misunderstanding have hindered the spread of this positive message.
HCN: The IPCC report was more direct and blunt than previous versions in terms of the policy obstacles and solutions. Is that intentional?
KG: Yes, I think that’s true. The IPCC recognized that practicality was essential. Remember that our job was to evaluate the state of knowledge and not to recommend policies. But there was a desire to provide more practical information about the possibilities. It is more direct, less theoretical and less abstract, I believe. The crisis around is getting worse. We’ve got to interpret and analyze the literature in ways that give people, policymakers, decision-makers and stakeholders, real actionable information that they can use to do things. That was something we discussed a lot in (the Urban Systems Chapter). We are not interested in abstracting about cities. We want to give a good view of the literature surrounding climate mitigation in urban areas, the failures as well as the successes, to be able to guide decision-makers.