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Cities experiment with big ideas to confront 'climate emergency'

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 7 February 2020 09:52 GMT

Around the world, front-runner cities from Bristol to Barcelona are testing new ways to cut their emissions faster - and improve quality of life

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Feb 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Green-leaning Bristol in late 2018 became the first British city to declare a "climate emergency". As part of that move, it announced an ambitious, stepped-up target to cut its planet-warming emissions to net zero by 2030.

Unusually, the goal covers not only emissions from electricity, gas and transport fuel used in the city, but also emissions generated in producing the goods and services consumed there - even if that happened elsewhere.

But work to shift the port city in southwest England onto a cleaner path had begun far earlier, even before Bristol's initial 2015 decision to become carbon-neutral by 2050, said Kye Dudd, a Labour councillor who leads work on transport and energy.

"The challenge of 2030 was not what do we do about it? In Bristol, it was how do we accelerate what we are doing?" he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Several months before the emergency declaration, Bristol had invited proposals from businesses to team up with the city on clean energy and green infrastructure projects worth about £1 billion ($1.3 billion).

The city expects to choose a partner for the "City Leap" programme by the end of this summer.

Together, city officials hope, they can develop more solar and wind power capacity, expand the district heating network and roll out smart energy and battery technology, for starters.

Dudd said the initiative had to involve both government and business, as the shift was too big for the council to manage alone - but the city also wanted to ensure local communities would benefit from new skills and revenues through its 50% stake in the joint venture.

"A lot of people are watching this and want to know if it will work," he said. "Other local authorities don't want to reinvent the wheel."

Around the world, front-runner cities are testing new ways to cut their emissions faster and protect residents from floods, heatwaves and rising sea levels, while improving their quality of life in the bargain.

According to advocacy group The Climate Mobilization, which is trying to persuade governments to respond urgently to climate change, more than 1,300 local governments in about 25 countries have now declared a "climate emergency".

But in many cases, translating that into concrete action is an uphill struggle, not least because it requires a wholesale shake-up of established methods of working, climate experts say.

"Emergency declarations, if they are real, can be very powerful tools, depending on the kind of governance and legal framework you're in," said Michael Berkowitz, a founding principal of Resilient Cities Catalyst, a nonprofit consultancy.

In countries such as the United States, such declarations can focus attention, unlock resources and help cut through red tape, said the former head of the 100 Resilient Cities network.

But to radically shrink a city's carbon footprint will take sustained effort "over a couple of political cycles", he noted.

For instance, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Labour politician, has pushed on with cleaner transport policies started by his Conservative predecessor Boris Johnson, now Britain's prime minister, including low emission zones and cycling infrastructure, Berkowitz said.

Another way to protect green policies is for local governments to involve businesses and civil society groups as equal partners in the push to tackle climate change, he said, citing the port city of Rotterdam as a good example.

"If it's just mayors with small coalitions pounding the table, that feels like hollow political statements," he added.


In January, Barcelona city hall declared a climate emergency - but only after holding a series of public consultations in the preceding three months, involving representatives of about 200 organisations, to thrash out a comprehensive action plan.

The document contains more than 100 measures to enable the city to meet a tighter target of cutting its emissions by 50% by 2030 and also to help residents adapt to climate change impacts, backed with 563 million euros ($623 million) of public money.

The actions include reducing private cars on Barcelona's roads, making residential buildings energy efficient, producing more renewable energy, increasing doorstep waste collection and recycling, and adding green space, especially around schools.

"We decided not to make a declaration of intention with an empty result or just long-term promises," said councillor Eloi Badia, who is leading the work.

The announcement came right after the introduction of the city's low-emissions zone, which aims to curb vehicle pollution.

But the extent to which the left-wing city government has brought big business along with it remains unclear.

Both the Spanish city's port and airport have pushed back against proposals aimed at lowering their emissions, such as cutting some short-haul flights. They have also defended their existing efforts to tackle climate change.

In Milan, meanwhile, police last Sunday handed out several hundred fines to people who ignored a one-day ban on most cars, a test move aimed at tackling the Italian city's notorious smog.

Ahead of that emergency measure, Gloria Zavatta, CEO of the Milan Agency for Mobility and the Environment (AMAT), said getting residents onside was a tough task.

"Every time you ask people to change their habits and leave their car at home, they don't think about their health - they are thinking about the easy way to get to work," she said.

Raising awareness among inhabitants about the health and other benefits of cutting down private car use and the air pollution it generates will be an important part of the "air and climate" plan the city is now putting together, she added.


Last year, Milan declared a climate emergency and approved targets to achieve European clean air standards by 2025, as well as to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030.

The best way forward, it decided, was to tackle the two challenges together so as not to create new problems, such as switching to burning of wood or other biomass for heat, which could reduce carbon emissions but worsen air quality.

The new plan will build on ongoing efforts to expand public transport, electrify all public buses and save on energy consumption by buildings, Zavatta said.

Milan is one of 15 cities receiving support from a European-funded initiative to trial new approaches to achieve big aims on climate change - something backers say will require experimentation and working across departmental silos.

The EIT Climate-KIC "Deep Demonstrations" programme, which plans to reach 100 cities by 2030, will give each city 1 million euros a year for five years to craft "radical climate action".

That could be anything from eliminating port emissions to shaking up food systems or moving away from heavy industry while helping workers through the transition.

Thomas Osdoba, a senior city advisor with EIT Climate-KIC, a European Union public-private partnership to build a zero-carbon economy, said municipal authorities needed resources and expertise to move away from "business as usual" - not easy when they must continue to provide city services on a daily basis.

One way to shift the needle is for cities to set up their own utility-style enterprises that can make it easier for residents to choose greener services, he said.

From Barcelona to Bristol and Vancouver to London, homeowners and businesses can now buy clean power procured by municipal energy firms at a competitive price, for example.

Similar entities could be set up to turbo-charge efforts to consume more locally grown food or to green cities like Milan which plans to plant 3 million trees by 2030, Osdoba said.

The expected returns from increasing urban vegetation - such as cooler temperatures, less flooding and better public health - could be used to raise capital to pay private property owners to plant trees, he explained.

"That's a big idea and it's not simple, but if you're going to plant 3 million trees in a region, you kind of have to work that way," Osdoba said.

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(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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