Cities Take the Lead on Climate Change
Sunday, October 14, 2007; 2:20 AM
VAXJO, Sweden -- When this quiet city in southern Sweden decided in 1996 to wean itself off fossil fuels, most people doubted the ambitious goal would have any impact beyond the town limits.
A few melting glaciers later, Vaxjo is attracting a green pilgrimage of politicians, scientists and business leaders from as far afield as the United States and North Korea seeking inspiration from a city program that has allowed it to cut CO2 emissions 30 percent since 1993.
Vaxjo is a pioneer in a growing movement in dozens of European cities, large and small, that aren't waiting for national or international measures to curb global warming.
From London's congestion charge to Paris' city bike program and Barcelona's solar power campaign, initiatives taken at the local level are being introduced across the continent _ often influencing national policies instead of the other way around.
"People used to ask: Isn't it better to do this at a national or international level?" said Henrik Johansson, environmental controller in Vaxjo, a city of 78,000 on the shores of Lake Helga, surrounded by thick pine forest in the heart of Smaland province. "We want to show everyone else that you can accomplish a lot at the local level."
The European Union, mindful that many member states are failing to meet mandated emissions cuts under the Kyoto climate treaty, has taken notice of the trend and is encouraging cities to adopt their own emissions targets. The bloc awarded one of its inaugural Sustainable Energy Europe awards this year to Vaxjo, which aims to have cut emissions by 50 percent by 2010 and 70 percent by 2025.
"We are convinced that the cities are a key element to change behavior and get results," said Pedro Ballesteros Torres, manager of the Sustainable Energy Europe campaign. "Climate change is a global problem but the origin of the problem is very local."
So far only a handful of European capitals have set emissions targets, including Stockholm, Copenhagen and London. Torres said he hopes to convince about 30 European cities to commit to targets next year.
While such goals are welcome, they may not always be the best way forward, said Simon Reddy, who manages the C40 project, a global network of major cities exchanging ideas on tackling climate change.
"At the moment a lot of cities don't know what they're emitting so it's very difficult to set targets," Reddy said.
More important than emissions targets, he said, is that cities draft action plans, outlining specific goals needed to reduce emissions, like switching a certain percentage of the public transit system to alternative fuels.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone's Climate Action Plan calls for cutting the city's CO2 emissions by 60 percent in 2025, compared to 1990 levels. However, planners acknowledge the cuts are not realistic unless the government introduces a system of carbon pricing.