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Magazine — 07.01.21

How Sustainable Are ‘Sustainable Cities’?


The city is viewed as an important entity in the goal of sustainability. The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specifically mention the importance of cities in Goal 11 – “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” The focus on cities is partly influenced by the fact that half the world’s population lives in cities, a continually increasing phenomenon. Around 80% of the world’s GDP is generated by cities, and city areas contribute to 70% of global carbon emissions and 60% of resource use. The economic and environmental responsibility they carry for the world is evident.

So, what is being done in cities to ensure sustainability for people and the environment, and is it enough?

The crux of the sustainable development discourse is the ambition to balance economic growth with the maintenance of the ecological sphere. There are a multitude of cities around the world which are commended for their efforts to balance people, profit, and the environment. This critical analysis will focus on a few cities in Northern Europe, namely Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki; often referred to as beacons of sustainability in popular discourse, who use a number of efficiency-based measures in the name of sustainability.

Helsinki, Finland.

Sustainability By Efficiency

Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark, consistently scores highly on various sustainability indexes. This is partly because of their ambitious plan to become carbon-neutral by 2025. This is primarily through a range of measures that aim to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon accounts for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere and leading to a rise in global temperatures. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that if the earth’s temperature rises above 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, it could severely alter the way we live, causing environmental and social destitution.

Copenhagen are tackling this reality through a number of energy-efficient measures. There has been a clear focus on reducing emissions caused by transport. For example, there are a number of super cycle highways, which have led to around 45% of people in the city commuting by bike every day. Additionally, only 29% of households own a car. The pedestrianisation of the city not only creates environmental benefits, but also increases people’s health and happiness. Motor vehicle emissions can directly harm people’s respiratory abilities, so getting vehicles off the streets seems like an all-round positive change. Not to mention, the added aesthetic benefit of pedestrianisation.

The Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant in Copenhagen is one of the largest waste-to-energy plants in northern Europe. The plant burns waste collected from up to 700,000 residents and 46,000 companies. It takes 400,000 tonnes of waste and generates enough electricity to power 62,500 homes at a 99% efficiency rate. This initiative is crucial, especially when you consider the detrimental impact that landfills have on air pollution, land, and people.

Stockholm, the largest and capital city of Sweden, similarly  uses waste as an energy source. Biofuels, generated from sewage waste, are used around the capital to power vehicles. The city also converts waste heat from industries, the underground, and housing, which is then reprocessed to meet the heating demands of the city. It is vital for Sweden to move away from their dependency on oil. The capital city even plans on becoming completely fossil-fuel free by 2050.

In Helsinki, Finland’s capital city, they too have a plan to become carbon-neutral, in a slightly later timeframe than Copenhagen – by 2035. This would be done through similar measures, including the upkeep of public transport infrastructure, and encouraging people to cycle and walk. The Pasila district will have 300 charging stations for electric cars. There is also a huge emphasis on recycling and reusing, with flea markets and recycling centres being very common across the city.

Stockholm, Sweden.

The Degrowth Alternative

Although positive, the above ‘efficiency-led’ approach to sustainability is sometimes criticised for not providing a meaningful solution to the social and environmental problems we face today. In fact, sustainable development is often viewed as an oxymoron. Many argue that economic prosperity and ecological maintenance are mutually exclusive. Often used in contrast, the ‘Degrowth’ approach refers to the downscaling of production and consumption levels to improve ecological conditions and human wellbeing.

Current sustainable city models are criticised for their focus on efficiency, rather than reducing consumption. This means that production remains high, but it has less of a direct impact on the environment. That might seem like a win-win, however, it has been found that even if governments keep to pledges made at the COP21 summit in 2015, it still may not be enough to stop the earth rising past the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius level.

This brings us onto the next point. This sustainability-led effort focused on by cities is only effective if other cities are also following the same principles and taking the same actions. We know that climate change is a global issue, and carbon emissions from one part of the world can have a direct and damaging effect on the rest of the globe. It is also important to note that the overall carbon output of these countries still remains high, even if it’s reduced in individual cities.

Another limit to this approach is that in Copenhagen specifically, their model is based on production-based emission figures, rather than consumption-based emission figures. Put simply, this means the carbon emitted from activities related to consumption are not accounted for. Yet, consumption-based emissions are responsible for about half of all carbon emissions. Similarly, air travel is not included in this, which is known for being the most carbon intensive form of transport.

Despite the many successes of the ‘sustainable city’, it is unclear what the overall effect is on sustainability at a global scale. This is not to dismiss the clear benefits of adopting this model, where citizens are reaping a range of social benefits. However, as it currently stands, where economic development and environmental advances lock horns, economic development usually trumps. This has led to hybrid policies which seek to improve both important factors, but many still argue this isn’t enough. Perhaps, a degrowth approach, which works to actively reduce both production and consumption, rather than solely improving efficiency, is what is needed in our crucial global fight against climate change.

Tamara Somasundaram is studying her masters in International Public Policy and is interested in how we achieve global justice for people and the planet.

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