Climate Action on the Urban Front: Toward Greener, Healthier, More Resilient Cities
A Conversation With the Aspen Institute’s Greg Gershuny
Large, dynamic, high-density environments—the major cities of our world—are often cast as villains in the story of our planet’s health. The volume of emissions they contribute to the atmosphere, their resource use, the amount of waste they generate, and more are obvious pain points for climate activists and central challenges for the cities themselves.
But just as with agriculture, another critical player in the environmental story, there are ways that cities can be made greener. Innovative technology and modernized transportation, improved infrastructure and sustainable construction, and commitments from various urban stakeholders—including business interests, utilities, city leaders, and residents—are all crucial to recasting our cities as protagonists in the fight against climate change.
Greg Gershuny, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program, has extensive experience investigating environmental policies and the promise of new technologies in areas like energy and climate-change mitigation. Prior to joining the Aspen Institute in 2016, the New Jersey native spent seven years in the Obama administration, where he served in various roles, including associate director for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis, chief of staff to the energy policy director, a confidential assistant in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and an associate for the National Economic Council.
We spoke to Greg about cities and where he sees potential for climate-change progress.
Lowering carbon footprints in supply chains, whether in the food system or in the last mile or block of city delivery, is one area you and your Aspen colleagues tackle. What developments in urban delivery logistics do you find encouraging?
Reducing carbon impact throughout supply chains is a big focus. We look at decarbonizing electricity, transport, industrial (steel, cement, etc.), and agriculture. Delivery of products—whether an Amazon parcel, Chinese food, or a new washer and dryer—rely on several of these sectors. For that reason, moving toward decarbonizing all of them is critical. Urban delivery is exciting because by improving last-mile distribution, you can reduce miles traveled and bring down congestion at the same time, all while increasing speed and efficiency of delivery.
With climate change, cities around the world will face increasing food and water challenges. Can you identify some of the solutions you and your team are exploring?
Modernizing infrastructure and supply chains for both food and water is essential. In this year’s Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum, we’re looking at equity and affordability when it comes to water and how utilities can improve in meeting water needs. There are a lot of areas, in the U.S. and around the world, where people don’t have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. We’re working to find good policy solutions to this, along with alleviating food deserts—places where access to healthy food is limited—and creating a sustainable urban agriculture system.
As you consider ways technology can help cities do their part in meeting the climate challenge, do any avenues stand out for you in terms of potential good news?
Electrifying everything is a critical step toward decarbonizing cities. Reducing the amount of natural gas and fuel oil used for heating, and the gasoline and diesel used for transportation, is vital. By retrofitting buildings with more efficient electric heating and AC, you can reduce demand and clean up city air. There are also important technologies like battery storage and using hydrogen for storage that can be harnessed to make cities more resilient, especially in the face of storms and high demand. In addition, carbon utilization is an area I think is going to grow in the next decade. Imagine turning captured carbon into 3D-printed material and making buildings, cars, and consumer goods out of it instead of using plastic or other materials.
You’ve stated that maintaining momentum in areas like energy and emissions reduction might be the most critical element of all. The pandemic’s economic impact raises the possibility of backsliding as nations and cities seek to recover. How do we counter this?
Given that nations, states, and cities, many of them cash-strapped, will be directing money into COVID-19 recovery and economic stimulus, it’s only going to be harder in the next few years to focus on the climate crisis. But what we’re learning right now—whether it’s San Francisco and the surrounding area that’s on fire or the Gulf Coast that was hit by a hurricane a few weeks ago—is that damage caused by climate change can negate any economic investment.
Consequently, we need to start viewing investment in climate action as investment in our local economies. Building more resilient infrastructure in cities, and promoting energy that is cleaner and more resilient, as well as affordable, is economic development.
Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.