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The opportunities for and limits of green growth in cities

Andrew Gouldson
Prof Andrew Gouldson of the University of Leeds ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics & Policy, came to visit the Cabot Institute on 10 October 2013 and gave a talk entitled Towards low carbon, climate resilent cities? The opportunities for and limits of green growth. Here I outline some of the key points made by Andrew and whether green growth is a viable way to grow the economies of cities whilst undertaking decarbonisation initiatives, using facts and figures taken from Andrew’s talk.

The emergence of green growth
There has been a rapid emergence of green growth over the last few years but there has also been a big debate around whether green growth is a valuable way to tackle climate change.  Andrew himself said that responses to climate change should be scientifically justified, socially supported, technologically possible, economically viable and politically acceptable.  It could be said that green growth really emerged from the publication of the infamous Stern Review which changed the political landscape on climate change.  The Stern Review, published in 2006, is the most widely known publication properly costing the impacts of climate change on the global economy.

Andrew pointed out that Stern’s work looked at the global scale whereas his research looks at the economic impact of climate change on the local or ‘city’ scale.   Andrew asked himself is there a similarly compelling economic rationale for action on climate change in cities?

Why cities?
Economics of low carbon cities report.
Image from Low Carbon Futures
There are several good reasons why we should be looking at economic impacts of climate change on cities.  Cities are home to over half of the world’s population, they are rapidly growing and 70% of GDP is generated in these big urban spaces.  Cities are also major growth poles and drivers for economic growth.  Any climate change impacts are going to be felt hard by the vast populations that live there.
With this in mind and the fact that cities account for 70% of global energy consumption, cities seemed a good place for Andrew and his team at Leeds to conduct a ‘mini Stern review’ resulting in the publication of a report called The economics of low carbon cities.  The city of Leeds was looked at as a starting point, but this initial report led to looking at other UK cities and now other cities around the globe including Kolkata in India. 

The economics of low carbon cities report has built a baseline that develops scenarios based on the continuation of current trends, for example, water use in the city. Realistic data is collected on costs, benefits and scope for the deployment of each carbon saving measure in a city.  For example, how many south facing roofs are there in the city which can be fitted with solar PV panels? How much would it cost to install the panels? What are the benefits and how much could be saved on energy bills?  This valuable information can be collected and presented to city councils to show them how they could decarbonise their city, and how householders could save on energy bills in the long run.

Case study: Birmingham
Birmingham city, image from Business Desk
In Birmingham, Andrew suggested that approximately £5.1 billion left the city economy in 2011 just from the payment of the energy bill.  If Birmingham invested £3.6 billion into green growth, this would cut energy bills by £950 million a year and would pay back investments in only four years.  This could potentially cut carbon by almost 11% (read the Birmingham report for more information).  Obviously much bigger carbon savings are to be had with more investment and by tackling the decarbonisation of the National Grid, increasing energy prices and utilising further cost-effective and cost-neutral measures within the city. 

Looking at energy use in the UK, it has actually decreased by 15% in the last 4 -5 years.  Two reasons could be the recession and rising energy costs.  Recently there have been announcements by energy companies to increase their energy bills even further, some by over 8%, and it is estimated that this increase could lead to a 22% cut in energy usage.  This is all good for decarbonisation targets but not good for energy justice.  This is why it is imperative that green growth receives investment in all UK cities so that having ways to save energy and produce your own energy are embedded into the structure of cities and people’s households.  This makes households more resilient to rises in energy prices.

Can we decarbonise cities in the next 10 – 20 years?
Future proofed city? Image from Dornob
There is definitely potential for green growth in cities however this will not happen unless institutions innovate and unlock the potential for decarbonisation and there is governance right from the start of early stage transitions.  It would be sensible to realise that green growth may only lead to partially decarbonised and mildly carbon resilient development in cities due to our current political and economic resources.  Andrew suggested the sobering conclusion that the benefits of green growth are likely to be eroded by continued growth and by on-going climate change and this is the crux of the limits to green growth.


Eventually as we transition our cities towards decarbonised goals, cities will have to be future proofed.  As Andrew pointed out, this means drastically changing their structure, function and efficiency.  It is up to us to create the future of cities by embracing decarbonisation and encouraging our local governments to invest in decarbonisation projects such as retrofitting and changing people’s behaviour.  As Andrew concluded, it’s no good having an A-rated home if there is an F-rated person living in it!


This blog was written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Cabot Institute Administrator, University of Bristol.
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Amanda Woodman-Hardy


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