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Climate Change: Why Mediterranean Cities Need to Become Resource Efficient

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Jul 07, 2016 / 0 Comments

In June 2016, France became the first industrialized nation to ratify the Paris climate deal reached in December 2015. So far, just 17 states – mainly small islands and low-lying coastal countries that are especially vulnerable to the sea-level rise – have ratified the deal. French president François Hollande issued an urgent reminder that the deal will not come into force unless at least 55 countries responsible for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions ratify it. He especially called on European nations to follow France’s lead.


Mediterranean countries are among those standing on the frontline of climate change. Environmental and economic risks such as sea-level rise and drought are sure to compound the ecological deficit that the Mediterranean region is already experiencing.


According to the analysis of Global Footprint Network, Mediterranean countries currently use 2.5 times more renewable resources and ecological services than their ecosystems can renew. The impact includes depleted fish stocks in the sea and carbon accumulating in the atmosphere.


Greece, for example, would need the total renewable resources and ecological services of “three Greece” in order to meet its citizens’ demand on nature for food, fiber, timber, housing, urban infrastructure, and carbon sequestration. Athens alone constitutes nearly 40%of Greece’s footprint, and demands 22% more from nature than the entire country’s ecosystems can provide.  The average ecological footprint of an Athenian in 2015 was higher than the national average - and higher than the average footprint of residents in other Mediterranean cities such as for instance Barcelona, Marseille, Rome, and Valencia (see figure 1).



Figure 1: Per capita ecological footprint of selected Mediterranean cities, by consumption category, in 2015. Source: Baabou et al., forthcoming[1].


Carbon emissions are the biggest source of this disparity. They make up nearly half of Athens’ ecological footprint. The carbon footprint in personal transportation alone represents nearly 25% of the overall city’s footprint.


At the global level, carbon emissions make up 60% of humanity’s ecological footprint. In this context, reducing carbon emissions is crucial not only with a view to addressing climate change but also in order to get our footprint in balance with our natural capital.


Another area in which Mediterranean countries may consider taking action is food. The world-famous Mediterranean diet – heavy in vegetables, fruits, and olive oil – is not only healthy; it is less taxing on the environment. As consumption of meat and processed foods rises around the Mediterranean - thus causing a drift away from the region’s traditional diet of local residents - a renewed focus on the region’s culinary heritage could help lighten the load on the world’s natural resources while boosting people’s health[2].


As of last year, nearly half (46%) of the world population lived in cities and the share of the world urban population is foreseen to reach 67% by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In this context, it’s worth stressing that the way cities are shaped has the single biggest influence on how people live and consume, and thus on how big their footprint is. Consequently, cities offer particularly promising opportunities for improvement. These opportunities will only grow more significant going forward. The Mediterranean region is no exception.


Consequently, city-planning and urban-development strategies that include energy-efficient buildings and adequate public transportation are instrumental to balancing the supply of natural capital and population’s demand. Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Fez, Florence, Marseille and old Istanbul are examples of thriving, yet resource-efficient, cities that embrace key principles. Such principles include compact living, which is more efficient for heating, cooling and lighting, and minimizes water use for landscaping. It encourages lower energy and water consumption while reducing waste. Compact, resource-efficient living can be best engineered through housing that is designed through strictly enforced green building codes that ensure key energy features and “green”, resource-efficient materials.


Because it supports greater population density, compact living also offers significant environmental and health benefits when combined with close proximity to work and shopping and car-free public spaces - which may be accomplished through mixed-use zoning strategies. Walkability, after all, is a key element of energy efficiency and public health.


Nonetheless, as of today, 13 out of the 19 cities that were the focus of the report by Global Footprint Network, have a larger per capita ecological footprint than the respective countries where they are set. This suggests that the resource requirements in urban areas are currently somehow higher than in rural areas.


These findings reveal the existence of a double dynamic taking place in Mediterranean cities in terms of environmental pressures. On the one hand, cities concentrate investments, offer more access to eco-efficient and optimized modes of consumption, contributing to smaller per capita footprints. On the other hand, cities also function as a “social elevator”, enabling residents to upgrade their lifestyle and therefore increase their consumption level. Better understanding the trade-off between these two dynamics is key for managing the interaction between nature and society and maintaining a long-term balance between human development needs and the planet’s environmental limits.


Cities that make investments to improve the well-being of their citizens while reducing their resource dependence will be more resilient amid growing resource constraints. More specifically, city footprinting can inform a broad set of policies, ranging from transportation to building codes to residential development. It can provide guidance to city councils in choosing the most sustainable policies that also serve the needs of their residents.


[1] Baabou, W., Grunewald, N., Ouellet-Plamondon, C., Gressot, M., Galli, A., forthcoming. The Ecological Footprint of Mediterranean Cities: Awareness creation and policy implications.

[2] For additional details, see Grunewald, N., Galli, A., Iha, K., Halle, M., Gressot, M., 2015. The Ecological Footprint of Mediterranean Diets. CIHEAM Watch Letter 32, pp. 10-16. Available on-line at:  


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