The Climate One-Two Punch

Like a boxer, cities are wielding their one-two punch in the fight against climate change. One punch aims to protect people from the oppressive heat, while the second punch strikes at the source of global warming by reducing overall GHG emissions.

August 2, 2021, 1:00 PM PDT

By Robert Fischer @Robfischeris


Climate Change Protest

Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz / Shutterstock

Boxers have been using the one-two punch to floor opponents since the Olympic Games first introduced the sport in 688 BC.  But turn on the TV today and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a boxing match. It’s a fading niche sport with declining ratings. 

You will, however, catch news of scorching heat, record temperatures, and how cities are throwing a different kind of one-two punch: heavy-handed policies aimed at protecting people from the heat, combined with measures that reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. 

Welcome to earth when it is 1.1-1.3°C warmer than it was before the industrial revolution. In June, temperatures in Canada’s British Columbia province soared to nearly 50°C (122°F). Meanwhile south of the border in the U.S. state of Oregon, the city of Portland hit an all-time high of 46.6°C (116°F). 

Then in July more records were broken across the western U.S, Europe, and even Antarctica. On July 20th, Cizre, in Turkey, hit 49.1°C (120°F), the highest ever recorded in the country. And in the first half of the month, Finland experienced its longest heat wave in 60 years, with temperatures rising to 30°C (90°F) in Lapland.   

If you think that’s bad, compared to the rest of the 21st century, 2021 is going to be one of the coolest summers. Though the 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to "well below 2°C," ideally seeing it rise no more than 1.5°C, a recent study released by Climate Action Tracker (CAT) predicts we will blow past these targets, reaching a 2.7°C increase above pre-industry levels by 2100.  

Unlike storms and floods–also byproducts of global warming–heat does not create the dramatic knock-out punch that photos of widespread death and property damage do. It is a silent killer, whose victims are tallied in retrospect. The Economist recently noted that 70,000 people died as a result of a heatwave in Europe in 2003, which became apparent only in 2008, once statisticians could confirm and correlate excess death and hospital admissions during that period. Most of them were poor, isolated, and elderly. 

And even when it’s not lethal, heat has pernicious effects, their reporting continued. Higher temperatures are linked with a greater incidence of premature, stillborn, and underweight babies. Hotter temperatures even make more people violent, across income levels. The International Labor Organization "predicts that high heat levels will, by 2030, cut total working hours by 2.2 percent, equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs, mostly in low to middle-income countries."

So what are cities to do when facing such a hot opponent?

A new report by McKinsey Sustainability and the C40 Cities coalition urges policymakers to assume a "wartime footing" against climate change, outlining 15 adaptation strategies to make cities more resilient.

Personally, I prefer the boxing analogy. Fundamentally, cities are left with two main types of policy solutions. Given the extreme temperatures, one punch must aim to protect people from the oppressive heat.  Meanwhile, the second punch must strike at the source and reduce overall GHG emissions.

As temperatures rise, the ability to shield people from the heat is going to be critical. Why? At hotter temperatures, the human body’s capacity to maintain a constant, healthy, temperature of 98.6°F grows limited. Human anatomy doesn’t leave much room for creativity.  When the body starts to heat up, blood vessels dilate, carrying more blood to the skin surface where the heat is eventually radiated. Sweat on the surface of the skin also helps dissipate the heat as it evaporates. Your breath basically takes care of the rest. 

Where the human body starts punching above its weight–when heat and sky-high humidity is also involved–are conditions that are expected to increase in prevalence. Sweat evaporation, which is critical to cooling, slows down and eventually stops when the so-called wet-bulb temperature—a measure that combines air temperature and humidity—reaches 35°C (95°F).

For some perspective, at a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C, even fit, acclimatized people who sit in the shade die within hours. At a wet-bulb temperature of 32°C, even fit, acclimatized people can’t work outdoors. 

According to the MIT Technology Review, "some climate models predict that we’re going to start hitting wet-bulb temperatures over 95°F by the middle of the 21st century." Meanwhile, other researchers say we’re already there. "In a study published in 2020, researchers showed that some places in the subtropics have already reported such conditions—and they’re getting more common."

This is why increasing access to cooling centers will be so critical. Cities like New York already operate several dozens of these centers, including schools, libraries, senior centers, and other buildings that are open to the public during heat waves. Plan on this becoming a new norm.     

But air conditioners are a double-edged sword. The century-old technology consumes huge amounts of electricity – about 8.5 percent of total global consumption – most of which is still produced by burning fossil fuels, according to recent reporting by National Geographic.  "In 2016, air conditioning accounted for 1.25 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions…[and] by 2050 that number is expected to double," the article notes. Innovating this old tech will be critical.

Regardless, cities will need to be more creative. Which explains why in July, 31 mayors from Athens, Copenhagen, Paris, Los Angeles, and Tokyo signed the C40 Cities Urban Nature Declaration, a promise to invest in green spaces to bolster protections against climate impacts such as extreme heat, flooding, and drought. These mayors realize that survival requires rethinking how we build for a warmer future. Many of these cities are already deploying crews to plant shade trees and creeping vines to block sunlight. They are erecting shade structures; hooking up spray showers in transit centers and around playgrounds; painting rooftops and road surfaces white to reflect sunlight and reduce ambient temperatures; installing rooftop gardens; and experimenting with permeable pavement, which cools surrounding air by absorbing and evaporating rainwater.

Especially noteworthy is the science behind painting surfaces white. It has long been known that painting the roof of a building white reflects sunlight and reduces internal and ambient temperatures.  A study by the California-based Berkeley Lab found that a clean white roof that reflects 80% of sunlight will stay about 31C cooler on a summer afternoon.

"Depending on the setting, cool roofs can help keep indoor temperatures lower by 2C to 5C as compared to traditional roofs," says Anjali Jaiswal, of the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, which oversaw a United Nations-backed pilot project in Ahmedabad City in western India. In 2017, more than 3,000 city rooftops were painted using both white lime and a special reflective coating. The systematic replacement of dark surfaces with white "could help to lower extreme temperatures… by up to 2 or 3 degrees Celsius" in much of Europe, North America, and Asia, says Sonia Seneviratne, who studies land-climate dynamics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. 

But no matter how many cooling shelters you build or white roofs you paint, the ultimate solution to global warming is, obviously, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

This leads us to the second punch. 

Like a prizefighter maneuvering for the knockout punch, cities should start by targeting the transportation sector, currently the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Even small GHG reductions in this sector will go a long way in this fight.

Transportation greenhouse gas emissions are a result of what the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCP) refers to as a three-legged stool – vehicles, fuels, and vehicle miles traveled. Critical to any successful transportation decarbonization plan is a three-pronged strategy that encourages technology advancements and influences consumer choices about transportation mode, fuel sourcing, and miles driven.  

Fortunately, there is no shortage of good policies to choose from around the world. For starters, many cities are already promoting clean mobility solutions in public procurement tenders. They know that purchasing environmentally friendly automobiles for their fleets–like electric and hybrid vehicles–helps raise awareness and even demand for cleaner mobility options.

The introduction of parking benefits and unrestricted access to high-occupancy lanes for electric vehicles can also help create a shift in vehicle technology. Hawaii offers free parking for electric vehicles at eligible locations that are metered. In Nevada, local authorities with public metered parking areas are required to allow alternative fuel vehicles to park in these areas without paying a fee.

And to reduce congestion and promote a modal shift in transportation demand, crowded cities like London and Singapore are also experimenting with innovative congestion management policy.  Instead of only relying on traditional point-based charges to reduce congestion, like tolls to cross a bridge or drive a section of road, these cities are leveraging new models like cordon-based pricing, where a charge is levied for crossing a cordon in a downtown area, which varies with time of day. Distance or time-based pricing is also showing some promise, where a price is based upon the distance or time a vehicle travels along a congested route.

For example, London’s congestion charge has led to a 20% reduction in four-wheeled traffic within the charging zone during charging hours, cutting an estimated 40-50 million liters of vehicle fuel consumption inside the zone and a total 100,000 tons CO2 emissions annually across London.

Beyond inner-city travel, investing in high-speed rail to promote a shift from private cars and air travel in long-distance travel between cities makes terrific sense. French lawmakers, for instance, voted in April 2021 to ban airline routes where the same journey could be made by train in under 2.5 hours.    

And obviously, supporting bicycles and walking zones wherever and whenever possible is always good, clean policy. The Los Angeles Times chalks up Copenhagen’s success in topping the charts as one of the most bike and pedestrian-friendly cities to a combination of effective political leadership and the investment of about $115 million in cycling infrastructure in the last decade.

While hitting the transportation sector to reduce GHG emissions is a strategic second punch, cities like Copenhagen have also targeted the decarbonization of other sectors like energy, the second biggest contributor to GHG emissions in the U.S. 

Copenhagen first made a commitment to be carbon-neutral in 2010–five years before the Paris Agreement–and thanks to their comprehensive strategy they are on track to be the first carbon-neutral city in the world by 2025.

"Having pledged to cut down on the use of fossil fuels, the city increasingly generates renewable energy from offshore wind turbines and its largest power plant has replaced coal with wood pellets," National Geographic reported in 2020. "Around 98% of the city is heated by waste heat from electricity production, 49% of all journeys are made by bike, and all diesel buses are being replaced by electric substitutes," the article continued.  Since 1995, Copenhagen has reduced carbon emissions by 50 percent.

No matter how you cut it, man’s fight against climate change is intimidating.  After all, the impacts of global warming extend far beyond just heat-related health issues. Millions of people will face insecurities when it comes to food, water, and their livelihoods.

This reminds me of a famous quote by Ferdie "The Fight Doctor" Pacheco. 

After Sugar Ray Leonard lost the welterweight title to Roberto Duran in the 1980 "Brawl of Montreal," the fight was so close that Pacheco simply had this to say about the Leonard camp:

"They only made one mistake, they signed this fight."

We should have never signed this fight against global warming. 

But let’s hope, like Duran, mankind prevails.


Robert Fischer

Robert Fischer is President of GTiMA, a Technology and Policy Advisor to Mandli Communications, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.

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