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An urban skyline with pollution going into the atmosphere from the chimneys at a power plant

Ideas to fast track zero carbon cities

Clare Wildfire, Technical principal, Mott MacDonald

A report for urban policy makers, following the recent IPCC Special Report on Global Warming, outlines the importance of city action on the pathways to a 1.5°C world. It shows where cities, as the cluster point of many operations with mitigation and adaptation potential, can galvanise multi-sector action.

The systemic challenge reminds me of the US space race. NASA’s goal - get to the moon and back within a generation - spawned innovation across sectors as diverse as nutrition and textiles, not just aeronautics. Some of those innovations were substantial in their own right, but their true significance was in helping achieve the mission. All the innovations together created a world changing event.

Where US moon flight ambitions were about investing in exploration, which typically produces knowledge, assets and wealth, today’s climate goals are mostly about investing in the preservation of lives, assets, wealth. Indeed, climate change is itself changing investment.

For a decade, the World Economic Forum has ranked the effects of climate change as the greatest risks to global growth and prosperity. In 2016 the G20’s Financial Stability Board launched the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure. It requires businesses to assess, disclose and manage their carbon and physical risks. Climate change has become a fundamental consideration for investors, lenders and insurers. Increasing amounts of investment capital are already being diverted away from carbon intensive businesses; divestment from those vulnerable to extreme and unpredictable weather and sea level rise will follow.

I am also struck by the change being driven by today’s youth. My university-age son is a vegetarian for environmental reasons, as are many of his friends. He eschews travel by car where there is a walking, cycling or public transport alternative. Each emerging generation of consumers and influencers naturally relishes the freedom to make their own decisions. But this generation differs from previous ones in their awareness that their choices could destabilise society and the economy as we know it – that a global catastrophe will unfold if they live their lives as their parents have.

In my role as global practice leader for cities at Mott MacDonald I am extremely lucky to have met amazing city leaders, seen game changing innovations come to fruition and read far-sighted reports. But I usually don’t have the headspace to look at it all in the round. I therefore took the Christmas break as an opportunity to consider the Zero Carbon City challenge. The mitigation focus in many cities is rightly on reducing direct energy use, but the benefits are not happening fast enough and it feels that the actions are not joined-up enough. Current effort and action to reduce carbon is far from that needed to win the space race. Below I’ve set out some thoughts that could help increase the momentum. If we’re to achieve a liveable, 1.5°C world, the issues of systemic cause and effect need exploring, debating and bringing to the citizens and stakeholders whose lives and businesses will be affected by climate interventions, and whose sanction we will need if they are to be successfully implemented.

Trust in the participatory process and bring diverse opinions into decision making, especially younger generations

Public opinion as to what good growth looks like is shifting:

  • A survey of UK city leadership in 2018 by Centre for Cities highlights inclusive growth as a focus area, where issues such as adult education have an increased role.
  • Two recent studies suggest that women could play a more central role in tackling climate change problems; research by the University of Adelaide found that average environmental lawsuit exposure reduces by 1.5% for each female added to a company’s board (typically saving businesses around US$3.1M in each case) and a separate report from the Global Commission on the Economy & Climate (GCEC) shows that parliaments with a greater number of women are more likely to designate protected land and ratify environmental treaties.
  • Younger generations are leading the charge on lifestyle choices for a more environmentally sustainable future

Giving these segments of society a voice to express preferences and influence over decision-making is likely to support a city’s vision to achieve socially and environmentally resilient future growth. There is likely to be some informing and upskilling involved in this, which brings me on to my next point.

Invest in cross-sector prediction tools, preferably those that include social and economic as well as environmental impact

This may throw up some hard truths but may also debunk myths that block change and show the whole city where to focus time, money and effort for the biggest impact.

As an example, the UK government’s Global Calculator showed the significance of diet and land-use in the anthropogenic carbon dioxide story. As cities occupy more and more of our planet, those looking to reduce the impact may find a larger carbon reduction ‘return on investment’ in influencing these factors than pushing some other areas of direct energy use beyond the point of diminishing return. The UK government is developing a programme for country-scale versions of the Global Calculator. My view is that in fact every city should have one, to help it gain a better appreciation of the scale of the challenge, and effort versus return. Other tools for cross-sector carbon modelling at a city scale are also emerging, such as the CityInsights tool from the Canadian based Sustainable Solutions Group or the Ecological Sequestration Trust’s Resilience Brokers service.

The multi-criteria modelling approach is also likely to strengthen the public appreciation of co-benefits. An example of significant co-benefit can be seen with the Mini-Holland initiative in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. This plan to introduce traffic restrictions in residential areas faced opposition during design and implementation stages, but the tangible uptick in life expectancy for children in the borough has changed local opinion. And the outcome also brings long term benefit to the public purse, in reduced health costs resulting from a fitter and healthier society.

Complex modelling is getting ever easier and more affordable thanks to the digital revolution. As the Global Calculator shows, physical, social and economic systems, and their effects, can be simulated and analysed, revealing amazing insights and truths, enabling stronger decision-making, and facilitating clearer, more powerful communication.

Allied with digitally enabled multi-criteria modelling, there are two additional important activities that cities should undertake:

  • Monitoring of the cumulative impact of multiple carbon reduction activities. Tools for this are emerging in the market, for example the Futureproofed Cities tool by Futureproofed.
  • Visualising and sharing modelling results with citizens, so they become familiar with issues such as funding constraints, co-benefit opportunities and pain/gain causality. Tools are similarly emerging for this too, such as Mott MacDonald’s Moata platform, which has been used by Auckland Council in New Zealand to make the public aware of, and active participants in improving, coastal water quality.

Be audacious in tuning the local market towards long term social and economic resilience

The private sector has a growing influence on investment in city infrastructure. But the public sector still has significant power to create the conditions for social as well as economic resilience. And to achieve long term public good it must exert these powers, through policy planning that embraces disruptive change and pro-actively sets the boundaries within which private sector innovation can operate. As one inspirational public sector client put it: city authorities can “bend the spend.” They can also bring together diverse players around a common cause. As NASA showed during the 1960s and beyond, where there’s a strong mission, vision and drive, amazing things become possible.

Clare Wildfire

Technical Principal

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