Ambitious cities like London, New York and Oslo are taking on climate budgets. It requires something, just as Sadiq Khan and Eric Adams advocate, that a lot of cities crave: to take emissions management to the balance sheet.
But how prepared are cities for climate budgets? Most already struggle with the green transition. Climate officers track hundreds of projects, stakeholders and inadequate data – and deal with immense pressure. Managing city-wide decarbonisation is more like scaling a mountain than sitting at a desk.
Before they even start to think about a climate budget, cities must connect emissions and economics. This minor detail is, in fact, major, because first comes connecting emissions to actions, and then actions to impacts: more like a moon landing than mountain scaling.
So let’s rewind. To find out what impacts our actions have, we must establish what to measure. Mathematically, this is vital for an overview of co-benefits, costs and return on investment.
“But there’s data for that!” you say about the emissions, actions and impact. Yes and no. There is national, aggregated data. While it’s a start, it is still impossible to know what had an effect. Just because we can find out our body mass index (BMI), it doesn’t mean it’s the best measurable unit for our physical health. Nothing stops us from doing things differently.
Let’s make sure we separate data and measurability. Data is units of information. Measurability is about quantifying when, where and what while assessing the chains of reasoning and certainty. How can this be done at scale?
This is a big step for man. However, there is an alternative. And it isn’t the first time that this option has been used in moon-shot projects: handing over the hard work to the computers. In other words, let software do the maths.
This dawned on me in 2018 and led to the creation of ClimateView. With 70 per cent of global emissions coming from cities, an agile tool to manage city transitions seemed critical. With government actors, we developed ClimateOS. Today over 30 cities, including Nottingham, Bristol and Dundee, use it to track their progress and build data-driven plans. It is based on local, activity-based data, and rests on the logic of measurable shifts.
What does that enable? Let’s consider the shift from cars to bikes. With quantifiable data on the amount of emissions saved per kilometre, we can calculate the overall emissions cut when multiplied by the number of people making that change. We can also assess economic benefits, for example in healthcare and job creation.
When an entire city’s climate plan is rooted in measurability, the transition to a climate budget is a short step. Another plus is we also see how it attracts both citizens’ trust and financial resources.
So, who is ready for a climate budget? The cities that acknowledge that the net zero transition is a once-in-a-generation undertaking. And that it should be done right, from the outset.