Heading to the Field: the Urban Decarbonization Research Project

Westminster and Big Ben in London, UK by  Stefano Montagner .

Westminster and Big Ben in London, UK by Stefano Montagner.

As my PhD research season approaches, I'm preparing to head off to visit cities with some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the world. Over the next eight months, I'll visit London, UK, Stockholm, Sweden, and San Francisco, USA to talk to policy makers about trying to transform each city's built environment in order to achieve deep greenhouse gas emission cuts. Governments from all three cities have signed up as members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, which is a group of cities striving to achieve ambitious long-term GHG reduction goals approaching carbon neutrality. This is a group of cities that says it is aiming for transformative decarbonization, but what does that look like as it unfolds? What are the politics of striving for transformative decarbonization? What does striving for carbon neutrality really looks like on the ground? What can other cities learn about these experiences?

I'll be reaching out to interview policy makers and other people involved in carbon management through buildings in each of the three cities to help me develop answers. As I describe in the summary of this research project below, this research project will build what we know about policies that have the best change reducing greenhouse gas emissions long-term.


RESEARCH SUMMARY

Urban Decarbonization: Practices and Politics of Urban Carbon Neutrality

Cities are increasingly adopting ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, such as 80% reductions by 2050. To make that ambition a reality, people in cities are trying out new initiatives ranging from local government’s financial incentives for solar energy to community group’s efforts to develop alternative, low-carbon economies using sharing. However, research has shown that these attempts are experimental and uncertain in their long-term impact. We don't know if these efforts are getting at systemic decarbonization of social, economic and technical systems, as opposed to approaches that slightly decrease emissions without tackling the drivers of carbon pollution. 

With the growing role of city action on climate change, we need more information about city-scale policies that have the best chance of long-term greenhouse gas abatement, especially understandings that take both technical and political potential into account. To fill this gap, this research project focuses on cities where people are trying to tackle deep greenhouse gas emission cuts. The project focuses on London, Stockholm and San Francisco because they are known as members of a small group of cities called the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance with relatively aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

More specifically, this project seeks to understand how people are changing urban buildings to achieve decarbonization. It asks what kinds of low-carbon built environment initiatives are working to fundamentally shift society and the economy away from fossil fuels. The research will collect information about both the physical ways people are changing buildings and the politics of making those changes. This combination of technical changes and political processes will allow us to develop an understanding of the direction that the city is headed, as well as whether or not decarbonization policies are likely to keep scaling up and become more durable over time.

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