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A Better Way for Cities to Measure Greenhouse Gases

Until now, there was no universal, comprehensive methodology for cities around the world to measure their emissions. One of the tool's creators explains its power in the fight against climate change.

An announcement from the United Nations climate change conference in Lima, Peru, could help American cities quantify the impacts of their environmental programs. The World Resources Institute (WRI), C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), and ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) worked together to create a new standard methodology for cities to use to count and report their greenhouse gas emissions.

As Governing reported in December, more than 1,000 American mayors in the past decade have pledged to reduce emissions, but city officials didn't have a standard way of counting them. The lack of consistency meant it was impossible to know the collective impact of mayors' efforts. 

More than 100 cities around the world are already using beta versions of the new measurement methodology unveiled in Lima, officially called the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GPC), including 35 localities that adopted it on a pilot basis in the past year. (The 35 pilot sites included Hennepin County, Minn., and Los Altos, Calif.) The three organizations that developed the GPC say they’ll follow up with workshops in different cities to help train government employees on how to use the methodology.

To explain the importance of the new standard, Seth Schultz, the director of research, measurement and planning at C40, spoke with Governing Dec. 8. This has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with some context for what preceded the GPC. In 2005, what guidance was available to city officials who wanted to measure their greenhouse gas emissions and track change over time?

In going back 10 years, the primary guidance was the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from the United Nations. That was really targeting emissions specific to national governments. It was meant to create guidelines on which they should measure emissions for national negotiations and ultimately for an agreement or treaty on climate change.

That’s often what cities turned to to provide some sort of guidance in terms of what they should do. As things evolved, cities hired consultants and consultants used [IPCC] as a guideline to create or adopt a specific process or methodology for a city.

Initially, it was cities looking at municipal inventories -- emissions just from city-owned buildings or operations. As that progressed, cities began taking a more holistic look and trying to measure emissions from the city proper, not just what they owned but things like private buildings and transit that maybe they didn’t control or went outside their boundaries.

As cities took a more comprehensive look at the impact of city operations, they butted into all sorts of issues in terms of consistency: you know, half that rail system is regional and the other is national. As a result, there were other efforts at national levels, with organizations like ICLEI, to create regional approaches. But regional differences still existed, which made it difficult to get a consistent body of work. That is what led three years ago to the ICLEI, C40 and WRI coming together to create a more rigorous, thorough and consistent global standard for cities to use.

By my count, there are at least seven other existing standards on greenhouse gas accounting and reporting. What’s different about the GPC?

Notation keys, which allow us to tag what’s being reported by a city. It’s the metadata. No other inventory process allowed one to do that. You either have the data, or you don’t. And if you don’t, it’s blank. If you do, you also don’t have much ability to see where it came from. The notation keys allow for that. 

The GPC also allows for reporting by scope 1, 2 or 3 emissions, which [include emissions for which the organization is directly responsible and indirectly responsible]. It is something that grew out of the private sector. No city-based inventory process has ever included scopes 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

It’s also allowing us to take information from a lot of different cities and aggregate them up at the national level. It has been the lack of understanding and ability for national governments to review and look at the information from cities because they use different boundaries, they use different emission sources and they use different formats.

Some cities conducted a baseline inventory back in 2009, but haven’t had the time or financial resources to follow up. I know you advocate for regular inventories, but that can be expensive. What’s your pitch for regular measurement to mayors with limited resources?

It’s going be a journey for each city based on the priorities and the needs they have and the size they are. I don’t think there’s going to be prescribed time frame in which they should do that. Mexico City did an inventory in 2008 and did an inventory every two years since. For them, they found that time frame and level of consistency is important. Other places extracted the information they needed to establish a climate action plan and targets and then they were off to the races for four or five years. A lot of that has to do with the mayoral cycle.

As a hypothetical, let’s say it’s going to take $150,000 and 2 FTEs in a year to do an inventory. As an alternative, I could craft a few new policies with the same level of resourcing, based on expert recommendations or stakeholder input. But it’s not a one-to-one comparison. An inventory offers a much more strategic road map because it allows a city mayor to identify, develop and track targeted policies to address emissions in the most important sectors and with the greatest potential for impact -- based on real data. And because an inventory really only takes a year to complete, it’s possible to both measure emissions, establish policy and see results all within a four-year term. That’s a political win. Without that baseline, and without that plan, the policies a mayor may advance are possibly not the most impactful, and perhaps more importantly, there’s no way to assess their impact within the confines of an election cycle.

When you look at emissions counted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many of them appear to be outside a mayor’s direct control -- agriculture, electricity generation and transportation, for example. That could lead people to conclude city governments have a relatively minor role to play in affecting climate change.

National governments have different kinds of levers at their disposal to take action. When you look at the types of actions national governments can implement compared to municipal governments, there’s a different array of tools. At the national level, the White House can set goals and targets in terms of fuel efficiency. As a result, it can mandate that cars sold by a certain date have to have a certain amount of emissions per gallon. That is hugely powerful in reducing emissions over a set period of time.

If you go down to the local level now, what’s in the city’s jurisdiction is not being counted or understood. For example, a city can provide bike lanes and a bike sharing program that would allow people not to drive as frequently. So, cities can remove trips completely, not just reducing the emissions per mile of the car driven. Cities can also institute bus rapid transit. They can do transit-oriented development, which increases density around transportation nodes. There’s just a huge variety of ways cities can make significant reductions in large population centers that national governments don’t have the ability to affect. When you marry what both national governments and local governments can achieve, it’s quite exciting.

A version of this story appeared in the February 2015 print issue of Governing.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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