You may think that because you live in an urban area, there isn’t much that you as an individual can do about climate change. After all, you want to live in a city, not on a farm and therefore can’t realistically go off the grid. What if I told you that there’s no need for such drastic measures? There are simple, reasonably easy actions that all urbanites can take in order to pitch in their part in reversing the disastrous effects of climate change. In fact, living in a densely populated urban area might even put you at an advantage for being more climate friendly when it comes to the resources, technology and civic support that is available only within a city.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, cities are at the forefront of climate change with growing populations and massive usage of energy and natural resources. Though cities occupy only 3% of our planet, they produce over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and consume 80% of the world’s energy supply. This means that if cities can run off 100% renewable energy, the impact of changing just that small percentage of our planet will be enormous. So if you live in an urban area, there is some sort of responsibility even, to push your city to change its policies to energy efficient, eco friendly alternatives.
On the flipside of this positive, unique ability for a city to make a huge impact is the fact that the same cities are at greater risk of being affected by climate change. About 75% of large cities around the globe are located on the coast and will be directly affected by the rise in sea level that is already guaranteed to happen, even if we cap the increase in global temperature at 2*C or below. Even worse, when disasters hit cities, the effects are felt on a large scale, disrupting economies, civic infrastructure, and healthcare systems. Cities like New York, Bangkok, Vancouver, Manila and so many others are increasingly at risk of being hit by superstorms and hurricanes along with a gradual - yet drastic - rise in sea level.
So along with being at an advantage and being responsible for making sustainable changes in your city, you and your city may eventually be forced to do so. But we’d rather not wait until that point - instead all of us urbanites can take action to ensure that our cities will not only survive climate change, but also lead the way in combatting it. In New York City, there are a million little things that one person can do to reverse climate change by living a sustainable lifestyle. Even better, you already know that your actions won’t be isolated or alone. In 2014, over 400,000 people came out to New York to join the People’s Climate March and demand that action be taken against climate change. You, a New Yorker, or a city dweller anywhere, can take actions both large and small to do the same. Below are just four ideas.
1. Cut Carbon Emissions: Walk, Bike, Ride.
Let’s be real here; you didn’t move to New York City to drive a car. You came here to become a part of this mass of living, thriving energy and there’s no better way to do that than to travel the city streets. Walking in New York City on a nice day is the best feeling in the world - you never know who you’ll meet or what you might discover. Instead of driving to brunch, take a walk and see your neighborhood like never before. Or hop on a bicycle and you’ll find that two wheels can be a lot faster than four. With easy to use docks all over Manhattan, and an ever growing cohort in Brooklyn, CitiBike is an affordable, healthy and incredibly efficient way to get around town (don't live in NYC? See if there are any bike shares are near you!)
Even if the weather is less than ideal, or you just don’t have the energy to walk or bike, New York City has the best subway system in the United States and it runs for 24 hours a day. With stations in every borough and connections to other modes of public transportation like Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and PATH, the subway system can get you where you need to go. When divided among the thousands of people taking those trains each day, the carbon footprint of riding the New York City subway is satisfyingly low.
2. Support Your Local Businesses
We New Yorkers can tend towards extreme laziness, refusing to walk farther than a block or two to grab a snack, a drink, or our daily necessities. Incredibly, this attitude has allowed New York City to retain a lot of it's local businesses. Instead of taking that midnight walk to a Duane Reade or CVS, try the local bodega on the corner and put your money in the pocket of someone who lives here and cares about what happens in the city. Instead of taking the subway or a taxi uptown to shop the big box department stores, try checking out the tiny little boutiques around the corner, whose smaller spaces and even smaller inventories require much less carbon output to get into your hands.
Even better, forgo a trip to Whole Foods, Fairway or Food Bazaar and check out the local farmers market instead. New York City's Greenmarkets can be found in over 50 locations on any day of the week, with New York State, Connecticut, New Jersey and Philadelphia farms all robustly represented. Pay attention to the seasonality of different foods and know that when you buy a tomato in mid-August that traveled to your plate from 50 miles away on Long Island, the carbon footprint is significantly lower than the mid-January tomato traveling from California, over 3,000 miles away. Even better, when you support farmers that inhabit the same 300 mile radius as you, you are simultaneously supporting healthy soil, clean water and clean air in your immediate environment.
3. (Rethink) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
While our own personal waste may not seem like so much, when you see trash bags piled on every curb in the city, you realize just how much New York sends to the landfill. Trash might not seem like the biggest problem here, but overflowing landfills are actually a huge stress to our environment. In addition to ensnaring and strangling marine life around the world, trash sitting in landfills can leach toxins into groundwater while discarded items decompose and emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which, according to the EPA, makes up about 11% of global emissions each year.
While you may not be able to attain zero waste status, you can drastically cut down on your overall waste. Reconsider purchasing a single-use item or one that comes wrapped in layers of plastic. Refuse plastic bags, opting instead for reusable ones. Try carrying around a reusable water bottle rather than spending money on water in a plastic bottle. Small actions like these can really add up, especially if every New Yorker makes a point to stick to them. Some actions that require more than minimal effort, but are completely reasonable, can have an even bigger effect. Composting is one way to dramatically reduce the waste your household or office sends to the landfill, and the city is taking steps to make the sometimes icky process a lot easier. See if your neighborhood has one of over 50 food scrap drop-off sites, or take your bag to the Greenmarket when you go to buy your locally grown vegetables. New York City businesses can even contact companies like Common Grounds Compost or BK Rot to establish a composting program at the office. Take an extra step and cut down on your household's textile waste by donating clothing to Housing Works' ReFashioNYC instead of tossing old garments in the trash.
4. Get Active, Get Involved
You can do this anywhere, but voting and advocating for political changes at the city level can make a big difference in your urban center. Educate yourself on city policies and understand who the local politicians are. While politics may seem like too big or complicated of a beast to get involved in, it is the best way to advocate for tangible change in the US. New York City doesn’t appear to be the most sustainable in the country (especially when you compare NYC waste management to that of San Francisco) but the city has put out some progressive initiatives to combat climate change.
With elections coming up, be sure to arm yourself with all of the information you need to make the best decisions on your local and state ballots. Check out the city's plans for combatting climate change in the long run, including the 0X30 initiative and PlaNYC. Pay attention to and advocate for laws like the bans on styrofoam or plastic bags by writing to your City Council Member or Borough President. Getting involved with local activist groups and environmentally focused events can be a great way to learn more about what's happening in your area and to speak up with your fellow New Yorkers to push the city ever forward on climate change.
As a New Yorker, you have so many tools and resources at your fingertips to combat climate change, and as an urbanite you have the unique opportunity to actually experience the change that you advocate for. With threats of sea level rise and climate-related disasters close at hand, New York City and it's inhabitants have already risen to the challenge of reversing climate change, all you have to do is make a few small changes, one or two big ones, and pay attention to the politics and policies of your city. New York is only one among 402 cities that have publicly registered over 1000 climate change commitments, but New York is your city and it's future is tied to yours. Like other cities around the world, New York City's plan of action in the coming years will shape the way the city looks in the next decade, the next century. Take advantage of your city's resources and the existing movement and add your voice to New York's fight against climate change.
Information for this article was provided by the United Nations Development Programme. Find out how UNDP is taking action on climate change here.