Measuring and managing living within Earth’s carrying capacity at the city scale

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About the project

Global demand for energy and material resources increases each year. This demand exceeds Earth’s carrying capacity (ECC), defined as the total number of people who can live within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of nature. The purpose of this research synthesis and critical analysis is to accelerate the knowledge transfer to Canadian cities about effective urban measurement and management frameworks, governance models and policy implementation for living within ECC, by studying how high-income cities are achieving absolute reductions in energy and material throughput. Investigations into alternative knowledge systems and development pathways were also explored to expand the scope of opportunity for effective action beyond conventional paradigms and approaches.

A literature survey for the period 2010 to 2020 was conducted, guided by two themes. Theme 1 addressed the sustainability frameworks and metrics cities use to measure progress. Theme 2 addressed the governance models and policies cities implement to mitigate their ecological impacts. Taken together, these themes inform how cities measure and manage the challenge of living within ECC. A sub-theme focused on high-consuming cities that report absolute reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the study period. A second sub-theme explored knowledge systems and development pathways that are alternative to the more common approaches, to gain additional insights into Indigenous knowledge perspectives as well as approaches employed by low-income cities in the Global South. Interviews with key knowledge holders in leading cities in Canada and around the world provided additional insights.

Key findings

Cities and ECC

  • Most cities studied are not working towards a goal of living within ECC and continue to invest most of their resources in perpetuating unsustainability.
  • Cities focus sustainability efforts predominantly on climate mitigation and adaptation. Most cities studied report confidence in achieving their climate target goals but not living within ECC. However, none of the studied cities’ emissions reductions are sufficient to achieve climate stability.
  • Attempts to improve efficiency or achieve circularity must be reconciled to the magnitude of reductions needed in current consumption and waste outputs by high-consuming cities to achieve living within ECC.
  • Greater focus on root causes of unsustainability, what sustainability requires and how to move forward is urgently needed.
  • Extreme wealth compromises the ability to live within ECC; and yet, economic growth remains a paramount objective for most cities.
  • Alternative perspectives and pathways—such as Indigenous knowledge, regenerative design and approaches of the Global South—are not yet part of the dominant narrative.

Frameworks and metrics

  • Out of 31 city-sustainability frameworks identified, only 11 align fully with the goal of living within ECC. Most sustainability frameworks remain untethered to global ecosystem stability thresholds.
  • Cities appear to be working with many sustainability frameworks and tracking multiple indicators. However, except for GHG emissions, few are working with metrics tied to global ecological carrying capacity.
  • Consumption-based GHG inventories that include life cycle assessment impacts of products in supply chains and out-of-boundary travel can provide new information to cities.

Governance, capacity building and policy

  • Cities achieving absolute GHG reductions use many policy tools; however, the literature does not reveal a marked departure from other cities who are identified as sustainability leaders using similar policies but not achieving similar results. Cities implementing innovative and/or ambitious policies are not necessarily reporting on performance outcomes.
  • Planning processes should be integrated and comprehensive enough to work within the complexity of relationships among natural and human-designed systems. Policy coherence among multiple levels of government and with global actors can help enhance municipal decision-making processes and achieve sustainability. Good governance and capacity building ensure that city measurement and evaluation efforts are conducted effectively, consistently and transparently.
  • Cities achieving absolute emissions reductions identified a culture of commitment by elected leaders within the city and at senior government levels, adequate resourcing to achieve explicit targets, and a focal point for accountability such as a sustainability or climate office, complemented by leadership and support across municipal departments.

Policy implications

Living within ECC requires adopting systemic thinking to have a full picture of the situation before making decisions for the future, and embracing that we are part of nature.

  • Cities need to follow a resilience-based “shrink, share and regenerate” approach.
  • We need broad ecoliteracy, sustainability literacy and overall greater clarity about biophysical requirements for living within ECC; stronger sustainability goals and more comprehensive tools; to clarify gaps and better quantify degrowth and new growth objectives; and a systemic reconfiguring of urban land use planning to reduce resource demand by developing:
    • equitable redistribution of the savings from reduced resource demand coupled with education programs to promote living within ECC; and
    • continuous investment in eliminating waste and restoring and regenerating natural capital.
  • Better consumption-based accounting of our materiality is required, starting with regular and comprehensive analysis of materials and energy flows. In parallel, cities need to reconnect with the five domains of consumption (food, buildings, consumables and wastes, transportation, water). Cities must measure both normalized and absolute reduction.
  • Policy coherence among levels of government and policy alignment across municipal departments is recommended to assess whether long-term ecological and social costs are being factored into operating decisions.

Further information

Contact the researchers

Dr. Jennie Moore, RPP, LEED AP, Director, Institute Sustainability, British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT);

Claudiane Ouellet-Plamondon, P.Eng. M.Sc. Ph.D., Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair on Sustainable Multifunctional Construction Materials, Department of Construction Engineering, Université du Québec, École de technologie supérieure (ETS);

Christina Olsen, M.A., Manager, Centre for Ecocities, British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT);

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR and the Government of Canada

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