Image: Opticos Design

Building Urbanism into Climate Policy

Over the last several years, I have been helping state agencies and utilities develop deep decarbonization scenarios that follow a “pathways” approach to slashing emissions by 80 percent or more in several decades. At the same time, I have taken a leadership role in the growing pro-housing “Yes in My Backyard” (YIMBY) movement as a co-founder of Urban Environmentalists.

Recently, I had the opportunity to join RMI’s Carbon Free Cities & States team, and I have been pondering ideas for bringing these two threads together. The urgent questions raised by our housing crisis and our larger land use policy failures deserve to play a central role in the climate policy conversation and urbanist principles should be integrated into the core climate policy toolkit.

Instead, current approaches treat questions around land use, urban design, and transportation planning as afterthoughts. These are usually limited to a modest percentage of reduced driving that is disconnected from the larger analysis and sometimes conceptualized as individual “behavioral change”: a limited frame that ignores the social, infrastructure, and governance context for individual choices.


A Need for More Robust Analysis

I can think of at least three ways that current analytical approaches fall short. First, measures are usually considered in individual sectors such as transportation and buildings, and cross-sector interactions are limited to impacts on energy supply portfolios. This does not provide a natural place for considering that multifamily housing may represent savings in building energy, transportation energy, materials and manufacturing, and natural and working land emissions all at once.

Second, the pathways models focus on substituting appliances and vehicles with efficient or electrified ones at their end of life. Representing the turnover of fleets of heaters and cars was a big innovation, yet they are still relatively straightforward to model. In contrast, more fundamental transformations like urbanization and transportation shifts from cars to transit and emerging solutions like bikeshare are difficult to quantify.

Third, the typical GHG accounting metrics mute the benefits of sustainable communities because they represent local emissions rather than global or per capita emissions. These metrics are based in the IPCC conventions designed to precisely account for national contributions: at small spatial scales they suffer from heightened disconnect between underlying emissions drivers and their physical location. For example, these metrics show limited benefit for collocating jobs and housing and show no benefit for savings in manufacturing and materials production that occurs elsewhere—let alone all of the environmental and human health co-benefits of sustainable communities beyond GHG emissions.

Worse, they show the wrong sign of change altogether when population is added to cities with lower average emissions than their surrounding region or country. (Recent efforts to holistically quantify local GHG emissions include those by Chris Jones and collaborators, highlighted by the UNEP in their most recent report on closing the gap to 1.5℃.)

A fourth, deeper reason is a technocratic and technocentric approach to policymaking itself, divorced from considering core values. How else can we explain decades of infatuation with carbon pricing as the silver bullet policy solution, even after attempts to implement it in isolation have largely failed to either create broad political support or move the needle on emissions? How else do we explain the obsession with luxury electric or self-driving cars, and ill-considered ideas like hyperloops and flying taxis as the solution to our transportation problems instead of bikes and buses?

Why do we spend a billion dollars a year in California on energy efficiency programs that focus on lightbulbs and building shells—and only recently heat pumps— but not the dramatic energy savings of living in multifamily housing? How did we end up with state policy allowing cities to bury new infill housing projects with endless reports calculating induced transportation demand while requiring scarcely any review of new sprawl that gobbles farmland and forest? (California is taking steps to address this mismatch.)


The Danger of Complacency

There could be another reason for the dominance of this approach than simple theoretical complacency: it is convenient for those comfortable with the status quo. Fossil fuel companies would prefer that climate policy start and end with a small carbon price. Car manufacturers benefit from electric car rebates even while they move towards SUV models that are more highly polluting and more lethal to pedestrians.

Recent events have shown the deep divisions in our society, which often fall along racial and socioeconomic lines. Climate policy is not immune to these issues, and many of the solutions that dominate the national conversation come from the parts of our society with the most power. As such, it may be time to re-examine our proposed solutions in light of issues of justice and equity.

Those who have long held the balance of power in our society may prefer technological solutions that can enhance their lifestyles and provide new opportunities for status goods. These solutions often substitute for measures such as allowing new apartments to be built or yielding some of the space reserved for cars to make way for people to travel in bikes and buses.

Rather than burying fundamental values beneath the logic of incrementalism and cost-benefit analysis, we should place principles of equity and sustainability front and center. Every policy vision should answer the question: is this an approach that can be scaled up to 10 billion people and sustained over time, or does it move in the direction of one that can? Or is it a temporary fix to a flawed system that has the risk of entrenching current inequalities?

The climate emergency does require broad, rapid action, but we should clearly distinguish between what is merely expedient and what is truly effective, desirable, and just. A vision of diverse, walkable urban communities meets these criteria and could have broad appeal; “electrified sprawl” served by self-driving cars does not.

Now is the time for building urbanism into climate policy as deep decarbonization scenarios become operationalized into climate action planning from local to national scales. A broader set of approaches than the current deep decarbonization toolkit are needed to address the intersecting challenges we face.

RMI has begun to actively engage in the nexus of housing, climate, and equity issues, and we are getting ready to scale our presence in a big way. I am excited to contribute to these efforts. Watch this space for much more to come.


Header image courtesy of Opticos Design.