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Does it make sense to compare cities’ per capita emissions?

Posted by Olive Heffernan on behalf of Paty Romero Lankao

It does make sense to compare the per capita CO2 emissions of Mexico City and Los Angeles (see figure below) to illuminate the debate on shared but differentiated responsibilities on greenhouse gases emissions and show that just as urban centers register different levels and paths of economic development, cities do not contribute at the same level to global warming. For instance, the real GDP per capita of Los Angeles (US$40,031) is almost 3 times that of Mexico City (US$13,470). The paradox here is that many of those urban centers with almost negligible contributions to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change are. One reason of this relates to the local level of expenditures per capita in Mexico City, which are similarly tiny when compared with those of Los Angeles. In such conditions, the binding constraint for this and other cities of the developing world is the lack of economic resources from peoples’ taxes and of economic growth to deal with any component of the climate agenda.

Figure 1: Selected Cities per Capita CO2 equivalent emissions

Sources: Data of the US cities were obtained from City of Fort Collins (2006) City of Fort Collins’ Local Action Plan” ( Data of Mexico City are from SMA (2004) Estrategia Local de Acción Climática de la Ciudad de México. México. SMA. Data of Berlin and Rio de Janeiro are from La Rovere, E. (2002) Climate Change and Sustainable Development Strategies: A Brazilian Perspective, OECD Data of Mexico City are for the year 2000; the rest are for 1990.

Paty figure.bmp

It is also illustrative to compare LA to European cities – and even to Berkeley. Not necessarily because the real GDP per capita of Los Angeles is twice that of Berlin ($US 21,432) -rather because the urbanization patterns in cities from high-income nations as Stockholm, Tokyo, and Berlin (with lower levels of GHG emissions) suggest that there is not necessarily an inevitable relationship between rising incomes, increasing use of private cars and increasing GHG emissions. Such institutional factors as urban planning policies that favor alternatives to auto transport, by providing high quality transit systems and raising environmental awareness may be key drivers of these differences. The conclusion we can draw from these is that policies and institutional settings matter as mechanisms to move our cities to less carbon intensive pathways of development.

Paty Romero Lankao


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    David Martin said:

    Los Angeles’s reputation for sprawl is largely undeserved. My impression is that central LA has greater population density than San Francisco (amazingly enough), partly a result of LA having been laid out during the streetcar era. Portland, Oregon’s moderate urban density dates from the same era. Partly because Los Angeles is hemmed by mountains, it does not have the same opportunities for limitless sprawl as Atlanta, Washington, DC, or even New York. The vast outer fringes of these cities are now getting some attention from scholars and the media.

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