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February 11, 2021
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Bristol, Lahti, and Urban Sustainability 

Cities and Climate Change

Cities have a complicated relationship with sustainable development. Urban formations, and those that live in them, are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide – with huge variation within and between them of course. Cities consume incredible amounts of energy, resources and food, and their citizens generally emit more CO2 per capita than those that live elsewhere. For example the carbon footprint of London is roughly 293 times its actual size; or rather three earths worth of resources would be needed for the consumption rate in London to be sustainable. Having passed the tipping point of over half the global population living in cities in 2008, and with a further three billion people expected to move to urban areas by 2050, this sustainability issue needs to be urgently addressed as part of any adequate response to climate change.

Urbanisation is an inevitable trend of the way people live and will continue to live – but it is not in itself a bad thing, nor does it need to be so taxing on our planet’s resources. There are plenty of cases where the physical density, innovative vibrancy and sheer dynamism of cities has been used to significantly reduce carbon footprints. For example, Oslo has far lower CO2 emissions per capita than the rest of Norway, and Kathmandu even more so with each of its citizens producing a 12th of the Malaysian average. The carbon footprint of cities is about how we choose to manage them, not about the cities themselves. Los Angeles is one of the most unsustainable cities in the world, which is symbolised by the fact that each square kilometre contains only 1600 people, at 13 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. Barcelona on the other hand fits 19,500 people into the same space, producing only 4.2 tonnes per person per year – an outstanding level below the European average. 


Lahti, Finland

Cities as the Solution

So cities can both be a driver of climate change, but can also act as a buffer, and a place where low-carbon living is pioneered and perfected. How can a city like Bristol, which has emissions per capita at roughly 11.96 tonnes of CO2 (very close to the UK average of 11.94), become part of the solution, and not the problem? One way forward is already on the cards.

In 2020, the European Urban Innovation Actions – the “urban lab of Europe” – funded a project in Lahti, Finland, to introduce a “personal carbon trading” system (PCT), or CitiCap; citizen cap and trade. The PCT scheme allows the citizens of Lahti to receive benefits, such as discounted bus tickets or bicycle repair services, in exchange for making green transport choices. A personal carbon footprint for mobility is calculated through an app that can detect what type of transport you are using, and create awards accordingly – in reality not dissimilar to the way a Nectar or Clubcard might function.
The other major function of the scheme is to collect comprehensive data on people’s mobility choices through the CitiCap app, to serve as a tool for city mobility planners as well as an open access mobility data source for innovators. This is all part of an expansion of smart-city infrastructure that can help compliment and inform investment in public transport, and green projects generally. The project in Lahti is still going strong and getting results despite the pandemic, but the question remains how Bristol with its One City ambitions can bring down its emissions, with its high congestion rates and low public transport use.


And for Bristol?

Obviously much greater investment in public transport is needed – spending on transport per head in the South West is among the lowest in the country. There is also a general acceptance that the privatisation and fragmentation of services has held us back – just look at the success of franchised transport where it has been allowed to be implemented. But digital infrastructure and encouraging behaviour change also have an important part to play. Enabling people to get out of the cars, onto the bus or their bikes through rewards would be a great complement to any serious investment in transport – or any other aspect of sustainable planning for that matter. The data collected by a PCT scheme (or similar) will allow authorities to make the best decisions, and allow citizens much greater participation in making their city a greener, fairer place to live. With the recent announcement of Bristol Pay, and its exciting ideas around the many different uses as a platform beyond just payments, the opportunity for Bristol to start building a solution similar to what’s been achieved in Lahti is tantalisingly close. We could go even further, and reward not just sustainable transport choices, but also consumer choices and community action – becoming part of fostering a positive culture-change in our city. Of course PCT schemes aren’t all of the answer, but anything cities can do for themselves under the current climate is a step forward – Bristol Pay could easily be part of that.




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