The Green Urbanist

#2: Three Actions for Cities transitioning to Zero Carbon

June 28, 2020 Ross O'Ceallaigh
The Green Urbanist
#2: Three Actions for Cities transitioning to Zero Carbon
The Green Urbanist
#2: Three Actions for Cities transitioning to Zero Carbon
Jun 28, 2020
Ross O'Ceallaigh

Many cities around the world have declared a climate emergency and have committed to reducing their carbon emissions to zero. But where should they start? How do cities make the transition from business as usual to meaningful action on climate change? In this episode, I discuss three actions that all cities need to take as they transition to carbon neutrality.


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Intro music by Tanoi

Show Notes Transcript

Many cities around the world have declared a climate emergency and have committed to reducing their carbon emissions to zero. But where should they start? How do cities make the transition from business as usual to meaningful action on climate change? In this episode, I discuss three actions that all cities need to take as they transition to carbon neutrality.


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Intro music by Tanoi

Today's episode is about three actions that cities need to take as they transition towards zero carbon emissions. I'm focusing on cities because over half of the world's population now lives in cities and that is still increasing. This means that as well as being hubs of energy usage, they are also the place where our actions can have the most positive impact.

City residents and governments are waking up to their key role in fighting the climate emergency and decarbonising. In 2019, cities around the world became hotbeds of activism with huge climate protests demonstrating that we want to see action being taken. Cities are responding to this and nearly 10,000 city and local governments worldwide have committed to setting emission reduction targets and preparing strategic plans to deliver on that commitment. Many of these have signed the Paris Agreement, meaning they will reach zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In the last episode I talked about what actually has to happen to reduce carbon emissions to net zero, such as reducing energy demand in buildings, using electric vehicles and renewable energy production. I won't repeat that here - Have a listen to that episode first if you haven't already. 

This episode is about what cities need to do from an institutional and process standpoint to actually achieve zero carbon. Three key actions that cities need to take are:

  1. Integrate climate change into all decision making.
  2. Collaborate with others.
  3. Use the transition to zero carbon as an opportunity to solve other problems.

Okay, lets look at these in detail.

1 - Integrate climate change into all decision making

One of the challenges we have is that city governments and local authorities have a particular way of doing things. And until recently, issues around climate change and energy have not been a central part of that. Some authorities have maybe one climate change or sustainability officer, who makes comments on planning applications and provides some advice here and there. But now many cities have announced a climate emergency and are scrambling to figure out what they have to do. I'm sure many are of the mindset that they can prepare a climate change strategy as a standalone document or maybe hire one additional member of staff to look after these issues and that's how they'll meet their promises on climate action.

The problem with this way of operating is that it treats the climate emergency as if it is an isolated problem, separate to the traditional functions of a city government like budgeting, regeneration, social housing, road maintenance. When in fact it permeates everything that we do and every decision that we make. And so to deliver on our commitments to achieving zero carbon by 2050, our decision making needs to be recalibrated to integrate climate change, carbon emissions and sustainability at every level. Now, that's easier said than done, so lets look at some examples.

One thing that many countries and cities have done is create a carbon budget. Think of it like this: Globally, we can calculate that if we are to stay below 2 degrees of warming, then there is a number of tonnes of green house gas emissions that we cannot exceed. Then you take that number and you can split up for different countries and you can say for the UK, you have to stay below a certain subset of these emissions and then for, lets say Manchester, you can split it down even more to calculate the carbon budget for the city of Manchester. 

The benefit of this is that you take this overwhelming global problem and then you split down into chunks and spread the responsibility around and it is clear to every local authority and every city what figures they have to hit. Preparing a carbon budget is just the beginning. It shows you what limits you should abide by, in terms of emissions. But you still have to figure out what actions to take.

In the case of Manchester, they've calculated a carbon budget of 15 million tonnes of CO2 from 2018 up to the year 2100. That sounds like an awful lot of carbon, but in fact if Manchester continues business as usual, they will use up their entire budget in just 7 years. So what that tells them is that they have to make immediate and meaningful action to reduce emissions and spread them over a much longer period. What they are aiming for is to become effectively carbon neutral by 2038, which means they can use up 95% of their budget by then and leave 5% for the rest of the century. The next step of course is to get on and start reducing emissions but you can see how having done this exercise of creating a carbon budget it gives the city a clear goal and something tangible to work towards, which can help to catalyse action and make a big problem more manageable.

Let's look at the next step. Oslo in Norway offers an interesting case study in integrating sustainability into the city's finances. 

Since 2016, the city has been using what they call a Climate Budget, which uses the slogan "We will count carbon dioxide the same way we count money". This is similar to the carbon budget in Manchester, in that it starts with identifying how much they have to reduce emissions to meet their targets. Then it goes further and actually identifies what measures need to be taken, how they will be financed and who is responsible for implementation. Then the progress of the climate budget is reported on at the same time as the city's financial budget so they can see if the way the city is spending money is actually aligned to the reductions in emissions they have promised. This is a great way of bringing carbon emissions into decision making and ensuring that city departments aren't pulling in different directions.

However, there is still the problem that cities can only have a direct effect on a limited amount of things. They are limited by their own geographical boundaries, and by the boundaries of responsibility that they or national government places on them. So for instance in Manchester, their carbon budget doesn't take into account emissions from flights into and out of the city's airport. And the climate budget in Oslo doesn't have anything to do with the vast amounts of oil that Norway extracts. Clearly cities can't do everything by themselves, which brings me onto my second point.

2 - Collaborate with others

I have been guilty in the past of thinking about the problems we face as being purely technical. I thought the answer was a group of experts sitting down and coming up with a solution and then imposing that solution on everyone else. 

But this is the wrong way of approaching the problems of climate change. The only way we can really achieve our aims is if everyone buys into it and works together. National governments need to lead the way and give the necessary powers and funding to local authorities and cities. 

Cities need to work closely with the private sector and local residents. You'd be amazed how little direct control local authorities have over land and resources within their cities. For instance in the UK, the organisations that provide electricity, gas and water, are almost all private companies. Not to mention private bus and rail companies providing, ahem, public transport. Even if a city does retain control over utilities or public transport this doesn't mean that the various departments all see eye to eye and work seamlessly together. There is often just as much antagonism and competition between government departments as there is between public and private organisations.

Just because different groups of people are not used to working together doesn't mean that we can use this as an excuse. Organisations need to make a conscious decision to work with different departments and outside actors around the shared goal of transitioning to zero carbon. A big part of that is having the right leadership that can help people to change how they work and give cities the resources to actually collaborate and create meaningful change.

I'm going to use the example of Manchester again. They've actually been quite a leader in this. To deliver on their carbon budget, Manchester City Council has formed a cross-departmental team called the Zero Carbon Coordination Group, which brings together the planning, communications, legal, finance, housing and other departments together to work towards the common goal of reducing emissions. Whats more interesting is how they interact with people outside the council. They've also set up the Climate Change Partnership, which is a group of 60 external stakeholders including the universities, Manchester City Football club, property companies and partners from the faith sector, the culture sector and others.

The city council and these strategic partners working together have direct control over 20% of the city's emissions and they have the ability to influence the other 80% by engaging with their tenants, visitors, students, and other members of the public. 

So, reducing carbon emissions isn't just about local government and big organisations. It requires the general public to be involved too. But how do you get the average person to buy into zero carbon when it means that they will have to change how they live their life. This brings me on to point three.

3 - Use the transition to zero carbon as an opportunity to solve other problems.

The narrative around climate it for many decades has been one of guilt. We are told that our way of life, the personal freedom that we enjoy, and the consumerism that upholds our modern economies, is the problem. Yes we've all been having fun but we need to make sacrifices. Your life will be worse than it is today but it is necessary to fight this strange faraway concept we call climate change. That's been the narrative and of course people are not responding positively to that. It's a hard sell! 

But as it turns out, this carbon-intensive way of life has not been very good for us. Although life expectancy has increased as a general trend over the past 100 years, it appears this may be wavering. For the first time in 50 years, the life expectancy of Americans is actually declining, with an increase in the number of deaths due to drug overdose, obesity, alcohol abuse and suicide. Experts have linked this trend to widening inequality and economic hardship among working age Americans. 

As for the economy, although absolute wealth may have increased dramatically, it appears to be funneled towards a small number of people at the top. The wealthiest 1% have seen an increase in real income by 40% over the last 30 years. Whereas in most large cities it is now almost impossible for young people to buy a home unless they are lucky enough to inherit money or have help from parents. The inherent instability of modern economic systems was highlighted in 2008, the so called Great Recession, and yet we are now in another global recession just 12 years later. 

All of this is to say that changing our way of life in response to the climate emergency is not a sacrifice but an opportunity.

If you listened to my previous episode about Zero Carbon Britain, you may remember me saying that achieving Zero Carbon in a technical sense doesn't mean we solve any of our other problems. In fact, you could achieve Zero Carbon while at the same time creating lots of new problems. For instance you could supply renewable energy through river hydropower schemes, which often have terrible repercussions for fish and other wildlife. Or you could try to reduce energy use by increasing the price of electricity, which would hit the poorest people hardest, thereby creating a less equal society.

So in approaching this problem of transitioning to Zero Carbon, cities must use the opportunity to create as many positive effects and solve as many other problems as possible at the same time.

What are some examples of this?

Well, if cities want people to drive less and burn less fuel, then they need to provide sustainable alternatives. Public transport investment is key but even better is walking and cycling. To encourage people to walk and cycle, cities need to redesign streets to provide proper cycle lanes, good pedestrian environments, wide pavements, slower traffic and more attractive public realm. The key is to make people feel safe and comfortable walking and cycling. 

And there are so many added benefits beside just reducing fossil fuel use. People who cycle or walk instead of drive to work are generally healthier, needing less healthcare and even taking fewer sick days from work. Less cars on the road means better air quality, which improves the health of everyone in the city. Improving cycling and walking infrastructure makes the city more accessible for those than can't afford a car, improving social mobility. Making streets more attractive and human scale encourages footfall and greater spending in local businesses, and may make the city more attractive for visitors and tourists. Having more people walking on a street can discourage anti social behaviour and crime. This is why urbanists are so obsessed with walking and cycling, its not just about emissions, they make cities better in so many ways.

Another example: 

Most of the buildings in our cities are old and inefficient. One of the ways we can hugely reduce energy demand is by retrofitting existing buildings to be better insulated. It would mean that during the winter there are far fewer people suffering through cold nights because they can't afford to turn the heating on. We hear every winter about the people who are living in fuel poverty. And although we are quite rightly worried about increases in extreme heat because of climate change, in fact extreme cold is far more dangerous in places like northern europe. So this investment in energy efficiency could actually save lives, increase peoples quality of life and save them money, which they will put back into the economy in other ways.

In fact, let's look at the economy more closely. There is a narrative that addressing climate change means less economic growth. In fact, the opposite may be true. A lack of action from a particular country or city will mean they are left behind as the rest of the world transitions their economies to zero carbon, creating new jobs and even whole new industries.

A report from the Coalition for Urban Transitions titled Climate Emergency Urban Opportunity calculates the economic benefit of taking all the actions required for cities worldwide to reduce emissions to almost zero. There is of course a high initial investment of about 1.8 trillion US dollars per year globally. But by 2050, these actions would generate a return of 7 trillion US dollars per year. That figure doesn't even take into account the money saved through avoiding climate change caused natural disasters or increases in productivity and wellbeing gained by cities becoming healthier places to live. So investing in decarbonisation is not about throwing money away. It is just another way of doing business. 

Of course, economic growth and getting a good return on an investment don't necessarily mean prosperity for all. We need ensure that the transition to a greener economy also serves to reduce inequality. We are now on the cusp of an economic shakeup akin to the industrial revolution. Let's use this opportunity to address inequality, job security, healthcare provision and environmental justice.

A great example of this is the European Green New Deal which aims to shift Europe to a low carbon economy, achieving zero carbon by 2050 while reducing inequality and improving the natural environment. This means overhauling the legislative and funding framework for agriculture, industry, transport and construction. Of course, this goes well beyond what any one city can do. But as the centres of commerce, movement and consumption, european cities will play a key role in bringing the deal to life. 

Thats it for this episode. Thank you for listening. All of the sources for the information and case studies in this episode are linked in the description.

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