CLIMATE CHANGE poses a real risk to the world's growing urban populations, according to experts gathered at Footprint Forum.
The sight recently of athletes running the Beijing marathon wearing gasmasks in an attempt to protect themselves from hazardous smog is a startling reminder of the effects of carbon emissions on cities.
China’s high air pollution levels, caused by the burning of coal, are making a major contribution to rising carbon emissions that the world’s cities need to curb to prevent climate change. This is a scene that sustainability experts gathered at the latest Footprint Forum want to avoid being the future of city living.
However, speakers at Footprint Forum: Future Cities – A Sustainable Future, held at London’s Guildhall in association with the City of London Corporation, shared some startling statistics that could put the future of city living in jeopardy.
In 2050, the majority of the world’s population – estimated to reach 9 billion by then – will live in cities. With 1.5m people being added to the population of cities every year, governments and businesses are going to need to change the way cities are planned, built and lived in to ensure that they are sustainable.
The statistics, shared by Adrian Gault, speaking as the acting chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, were uncomfortable to listen to. If the world doesn’t reduce its carbon emissions, the temperature will rise by an estimated four to five degrees, making parts of the world uninhabitable. In the UK, extreme weather events such as flooding and heatwaves are going to become the norm.
In order to achieve the committee’s target of a temperature rise within two degrees (anything above that and climate change reaches dangerous levels) emissions will need to fall dramatically. Energy-related emissions will have to fall by 90-95% to meet this temperature target, said Gault, and the energy system will need to be de- carbonised by 2050.
But there was a ray of light among the onslaught of alarming statistics. The Climate Change Act 2008 makes it the government’s duty to reduce carbon levels below the 1990 baseline by 2050. This, said the chair of the forum, the politician, writer and environmentalist Stanley Johnson, is something to be proud of and shows an unprecedented commitment at government level to address climate change.
However, the UK will have to make progress much faster in order to meet targets, said Gault. The way transport and buildings are built and run will have to change completely.
Greg Lowe, the executive director of sustainability, science and policy practice at insurance broker Willis, shared some examples of innovative sustainable city thinking, such as the construction of an earthquake-resistant highway built in Tokyo. Smart building such as this is going to have to become the norm rather than the exception in order for cities to survive under changing weather conditions.
But individual smart thinking is not going to be enough. Tough action will need to be taken at government level. However, questions were asked during the discussion panel regarding how much policymakers really know or care about climate change. Can politicians think beyond the five-year general election cycle to tackle carbon emissions?
Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary, recently called for the UK’s Climate Change Act to be scrapped. The prime minister has also done little to dispel the reports that he wants to “cut the green crap”, while the EU was last month criticised for its commitment to cut emissions by at least 40% by 2030. Environmental NGOs described it as far too unambitious.
Perhaps the icy reception of politicians, economists and environmentalists to Paterson’s proposal demonstrates that there is an understanding at the very top levels of the action that needs to be taken to tackle global warming. The key to tackling climate change is co-ordinated action by global leaders in conjunction with joined-up thinking across sectors and supply chains.
There has certainly been a move in the right direction with China’s pledge to take action against climate change, announced at the UN Climate Change Summit in New York in September (see page 6). In March, countries are expected to submit their intended nationally determined contributions towards reducing greenhouse gases. “Only then can we judge whether [New York] was a success or not,” said a senior policy adviser on climate change for Oxfam recently.
China’s commitment comes too late for this year’s Beijing marathon runners. There needs to be a change of pace at a national, European and global level to have any chance of a binding agreement in Paris next year to reduce emissions substantially.
And action needs to be taken quickly in order to fundamentally change the world’s infrastructure so that cities to operate sustainably, for the future health and prosperity of the growing number of city dwellers around the world.
Who said that?
“At the manufacturing level, what we’ve discovered is, we have the same [food security] issues. In order for our manufacturing to work, we have to build resilience in there too. Of the 17 manufacturing sites in the UK, we’ve come up with over 200 action points that we have to address.” Inder Poonaji, Nestlé head of sustainability
“Cities are growing at a rapid rate and becoming an inescapable part of our society. If you look globally, 1.5m people are added to cities every single year. Shouldn’t we be finding ways of making people’s lives in the countryside worthwhile and valuable, so that they would stay there?” Tom Beagent, PWC sustainability and climate change team director
“The fundamental problem within the food industry is the concern with regards to food security. I’m normally an optimistic guy, but I’m finding it hard to be optimistic about this. The growing population is putting a huge strain on food security. We’ve not increased wheat yield in this country for the best part of a decade.” David Clarke, Assured Food Standards chief executive
“We need to build our cities much more intelligently than we’re doing today. This starts with building in better places. Some of this is about building smarter.” Greg Lowe, Willis executive director of sustainability, science and policy practice
“My own organisation has an annual energy bill of £15.8m. We brought in a firm of energy analysts to look at where prices were going. By 2020, they forecast that we are going to be looking at a 35% increase in our energy bills if we continue with the same level of use. That’s a lot of money so in terms of cutting emissions, we are talking about cutting the amount of energy we use and therefore cutting the amount of money that we spend. You can separate out the moral case from the economic case and the economic case shines out. It’s the sensible thing to do.” Simon Mills, City of London Corporation head of sustainability
Cities are currently responsible for about 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions and can play a critical role in reducing these emissions and strengthening resilience. At the New York Climate Summit in September a number of commitments were made relating to emissions from cities. These included the Compact of Mayors – signed by mayors from around the world, including New York, Seoul, Paris, Johannesburg, Bogota and Copenhagen – which will harmonise cities’ targets and strategies. Among the 2,000 cities in the compact, 228 have voluntary targets and strategies for greenhouse gas reductions that could avoid up to 2.1 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year.