Tuesday, 21 July 2015

George Adams - Cities: the battle ground between the global financial market forces and the drive for a low carbon future

All human societies fundamentally depend on natural resources and the environment; we now outstrip Earth's natural replenishment capacity by 50%. Climate change has become an ever more irrefutable and urgent issue but still we have no effective international agreement that has any chance of stopping the rise in carbon emissions let alone reduce the levels. What we do have is more conferences and more publications giving the impression to the general public that somewhere the powers that be are solving the big issue. The reality is a continuance of pouring vast sums of money into finding, supplying and consuming more fossil fuels; emissions are predicted to increase by 29% and energy consumption up by 41% by 2035 (BP report 2014).

My questions are these: how do we get local communities to align with the common cause of creating sustainable urban environments, and how do move globally to a new carbon adverse economy to avoid the bigger risk of a future based on fossil fuels.

A longer-term agenda could be about people, their place and surroundings. Local smart solutions could be about Local Authorities, business and communities working together to recognise the responsibilities of location and society with Cities at the heart of this; as we move towards 80% of humanity living in them. The urgency would then be to move forward with the re invention of cities into sustainable, adaptive, healthy and responsible urban communities; able to cope with the inevitable complexities of our future existence.

So I put it to you that our cities will be the battle ground between traditional financial market forces and the urban drive towards essential low carbon smart city economies. It seems to me, the World’s financial markets can't be expected to solve the fossil fuels dependency problem because they simply don't know how to make the big changes quickly enough to avoid the potential for the biggest ever economic meltdown if we continue the current path towards 4 to 6°C of global warming.

We all know there’s been a vast amount of climate change information produced over the past 20 years. But we are in danger of assuming it is producing meaningful action.
The past financial crisis demonstrated what happens when big risks accumulate without adequate management; as indicated by Lord Stern saying the risks are "very big indeed". Sadly it’s not much different today. The so-called "carbon bubble" is a result of an over-valuation of oil, coal and gas reserves held by fossil fuel companies. According to a UCL report in 2014, at least two-thirds of these reserves will have to remain underground if the world is to meet the existing internationally agreed targets to avoid "dangerous" climate change. The recent Earth Day 2015 report concluded that broadly we must keep 75% of all known fossil fuels in the ground.

London, as with many cities, faces future challenges relating to: growth; urbanisation; pollution; resource efficiency; and a changing climate.  London’s population is projected to grow by 12% over the next 20 years. The resulting demands and pressure on energy infrastructure and natural resources obliges city infrastructure providers and consumers to adapt intelligently to ensure efficient, affordable and sustainable solutions. London and other UK cities are with others at the forefront of this change, piloting and pioneering new secure, flexible, low carbon and growth-stimulating urban based solutions that could be cost-effective, smarter, cleaner and locally managed. The difficult organisational system and societal changes need to merge the role of consumers and producers in developing and providing, healthy energy, food, water and mobility integrated solutions that respect the limits of natural resources, the need for total recycling of waste and create cities that integrate strategic urban green landscaping. The real innovation is to join it all up in a holistic systems approach to achieve best value, clean urban environments and sustainable low carbon economies. 
For example the path finding works by the city of Durban. Where transitioning to a low carbon city was the focus of a consensus study from which its report provides 12 key strategic recommendations, as well as sector-specific recommendations, which Durban needs to address in order to transition to a low carbon city.

I believe the issues are beyond international leadership and global conferences now and that a world of local empowered urban communities working in parallel with each other, backed up by enforceable law is likely to provide the fastest and most effective strategy. People are the cause and yet they are also the solution. The Rocky Park community garden scheme in Bethnal Green London which I visited recently is a great example that people can take positive action to green – up their local urban area and bring about better social behaviour.

The role of governments I suggest is to educate and empower cities and urban communities to change and to respond to the biggest conflict and opportunity the human race has ever needed to grasp.

George Adams