Jacob Scherr, Director, Global Strategy & Advocacy, Washington, DC

Mayors are showing real leadership on the planetary challenge of climate change while improving the quality of the life in their cities.  Here is the next in the series of global-local blogs by reporter Sarah Glazer with an interview with a London School of Economics expert and reflections on a new C-40 survey of climate action by cities around the world.

Four-year-old Amanat Devi Jain lives in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, and she has to receive treatments from a breathing machine twice a day for her asthma.

“But whenever we leave the country, everyone goes back to breathing normally,” herTrafficjamdelhi.jpg father, a private equity investor who moved back to Delhi after 12 years in the United States, recently told the New York Times. “It’s something my wife and I talk about constantly.” 

If cities want to continue attracting cosmopolitan skilled professionals like Jain and the companies that employ them, they’ll have to offer an environment that doesn’t threaten the health of workers and their children.

That was one of the conclusions of a recent report rating cities’ future economic competitiveness produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the magazine’s business information arm.

Increasingly, business investors are looking at a city’s ability to maintain air quality and safe drinking water and to protect itself against the natural disasters stemming from climate change, according to the Economist.

Chicago, rated America’s second most competitive city in 2025 and ninth worldwide, ranks above any other U.S. city in its municipal government’s ability to deal with environmental challenges, according to the report.

By contrast, Delhi will reach only 56th place in global competitiveness in the next decade, despite its rapid economic growth, in large part because it performs poorly on environmental policies to limit pollution and ensure a sustainable supply of water.

Yet even this report understates the importance that environment will play in cities’ future economic growth, according to Philipp Rode, executive director of the London School of Economics (LSE) Cities program. In coming up with its rankings, the Economist only gave a 5 percent weight to a city’s environment, compared to a 30 percent weight for its “economic strength.”

“Clearly a competitive index takes an extremely short-term view; that’s why you get such low ratings for the environment,” says Rode. Yet over the next few decades, he says, businesses will want assurance that a city is planning to be resilient against the kind of disruptions that shut New York City down during Hurricane Sandy. “How could you possibly be a competitive city if you’re exposed to significant flood risks?” he asks.

The world’s biggest cities have got the message. They have more than doubled the number of actions they’re taking against climate change over the last two years, according to a new survey from C40, which represents 63 mega-cities around the world.

Expressing frustration with the failure of international climate change treaty negotiations, the report declares, “In the continuing absence of tangible outcomes from inter-governmental efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions … the mayors of the world’s greatest cities are taking concrete actions to demonstrate that preventing catastrophic climate change is possible.”

Reducing the risk of floods tops the list of the most frequent steps cities are taking, followed closely by climate planning and energy generation from renewables or other low-carbon methods.

But the mega-cities have also taken remarkably swift action to improve daily life for their citizens right away, along with the air they breathe.

 In 2011 only six mega-cities had the kind of bicycle rental scheme pioneered by Paris, which has transformed how students and workers get around the city of light. By last year, 36 cities had followed the example of Paris in introducing bike share schemes.

Also catching on are so-called Bus Rapid Transit systems, first pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil, which give dedicated lanes to buses to protect them from traffic congestion-- often in the center of the road to avoid interference from curbsides where cars and trucks are parking.

 Rio expects that its adoption of this system will increase the share of trips made by mass transit from 18 percent to 63 percent over the next two years. Thirty-five mega-cities are planning similar advanced bus systems, C40 found.

Perhaps more than any other action taken by cities, superior public transit systems like these embed a level of social equality that is absent when you have to own a car to reach your destination.         

When you see a bus filled with impoverished workers stuck in a traffic jam, while cars driven by the wealthy zoom past along a highway barred to buses, “it’s just as unequal as women not being able to vote” in the 19th century, Enrique Peñalosa, the impassioned former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, told a conference in Rio last October.

penalosa on a bike.jpgAs mayor from 1998 to 2001, Peñalosa introducede buses with exclusive roadways to Bogota, now probably the largest such bus rapid transit system in the world. These days, when a bus zooms past a car in Bogota, it’s “a beautiful democratic symbol,” Peñalosa said in a recent TED talk.Such systems can also be quickly extended in rapidly growing cities at far less expense than digging new subway tunnels.

Some 15 years ago, Bogota also built more than 200 miles of protected bikeways, long before it became a trend in more affluent European cities. To Peñalosa, these separated cycle paths in his city, which was teeming with slums and lacked even basic sidewalks, “are not a cute architectural feature; they are a right.” They show that a citizen on a $30 bike is equal to someone driving a $30,000 car, he argues.

Pointing to cities like Amsterdam, where even the rich ride bicycles, Peñalosa says, “An advanced city isn’t one where even the poor use cars but rather where even the rich use public transport.”