Since the beginning of the last decade, climate change has become a central theme in global geopolitics. Before that, scientists dominated the debate by demonstrating that our environmental system is indeed changing. This is mostly due to our human activities furthering the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Climate change is already causing severe economic, social and human losses and we must ensure future generations grasp the same opportunities and resources currently available. And for us to embrace a transformative spirit, we need to ensure all the citizens are duly prepared to strive for the change so desperately needed. This is easier said than done as carbon-based lobbies are pushing to maintain their grasp on the global economy. However, we consumers horribly depend on the millions of jobs and goods they produce.
How can we as citizens promote the necessary change to ensure climate resilience, and stop our contribution to a visible problem so poorly combated by global geopolitics that inertia will impede reaching a pre-industrial age climate anytime soon? The answer might be closer to hand than you expected: your city.
Demographics foresee that nearly 70% of the world population will live in cities by 2050 and the number and size of metropolises will increase significantly. Most of us live in them already, particularly in the EU. Cities compete among themselves to create better and more jobs; a symbiotic embrace of the “circle of life” where the strongest flourish and the weak face their demise. Citizens naturally migrate to those cities which provide them with better opportunities for their livelihood and quality of life.
So, if the global debate is not prolific in properly addressing the climate emergency, then you need to start talking to those that can make a difference: your city mayor and your community.
Cities manage and regulate most of the activities responsible for large scale emissions in their areas as well as your safety. Some of these challenges have already been tackled with great levels of success. Take a few highly replicable and scalable examples of policies and noteworthy practices where cities merge their will with a wide range of stakeholders and individuals for the common good.
In Portugal, the Lisbon and Porto metropolitan regions, its member municipalities and public transportation companies have developed an integrated transport ticket with lower costs for individuals and families alike. This has seen a significant rise in the number of users – an increase of 42% - and as a consequence, decreased the number of car commuters. The policy has also been further adapted in other cities like Cascais, where the “mobiCascais” program also includes car parking, electric car charging and bicycle hire to help facilitate low carbon-emission commuting. These strategies are assumed by the government as key actions to achieve the national emission targets.
To combat water scarcity, Cascais also exclusively uses recycled water for urban cleaning, which has saved over 12,000m3 of drinkable water yearly. Furthermore, with the efficiency of urban greenspace design (by using natural stone elements and autochthon species), each square metre of area needs less 4 litres of watering per day.
Another good example is the autonomous Basque Country which recently developed their climate plan, “Klima 2050” which envisages emission targets set together in step with the development of the local economy. These plans, which have already been massively developed in many cities and regions in Europe, predict the region’s economic growth at 65% while achieving a reduction of 18% in the overall emissions.
Amsterdam, too, has developed the Climate and Energy Fund (AKEF) and the Sustainability Fund which loans up to €5 million to support local projects which contribute to climate resilient projects, with the aim of reducing CO2 emissions by 40% by 2025. Over 65 projects have been supported by the funds, a great example how private and public funds can generate transformative cities.
Spatial planning can promote the reuse of materials in construction and renewable energy sources while actively managing enough carbon sinks in CO2 absorption areas (forests, water-beds etc). Copenhagen leads the way with one of the most ambitious plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2025, some 25 years earlier than Denmark’s country-wide commitment. This is being accomplished through building retrofits and new regulation to reduce their ecological footprint, efficient waste management and mobility, while heavily investing in renewable energy sources.
While promoting a green economy, it is essential that local products and services contribute to market needs while warranting reduced carbon footprints. Led by Beladon and the Port of Rotterdam, the “Floating Farm” is a great innovative example of how dairy and farming products can be produced in local infrastructures for local markets. This is just one example of the already hundreds of urban farming projects all over Europe.
This idea leads us to well-known “nature-based solutions,” providing better quality of life for urban living and integrating better environmental services. Take the example of Barcelona, for instance, where its Green Infrastructure and Biodiversity Plan seeks to implement a wide range of environmentally-friendly features to reduce the impact of heat waves and other extreme weather events (like flooding), all while restoring the region’s ecological services. A few examples are the green corridors along the city which facilitate cooling through shading and permeable soil. Further examples are the city’s urban gardens, which are a safe location for both human activities and the diverse biodiversity (prospering pollination, soil fertility, water infiltration etc), while serving simultaneously as “sponge areas” which can be temporarily flooded without permanent damage. All of these help improve CO2 sequestration and air quality.
One particular factor that has a detrimental impact on tackling the climate crisis is the participation and inclusion of “individuals” in policy making. If we solely delegate all our power through a vote at the ballot box, we are resigning from our potential active participation in the decision making process. To become policy “makers” and “co-creators,” citizens must demand and promote the adoption of efficient technology. We ourselves need to be held accountable; by our actions and the opportunities we miss.
One example of taking affirmative action is the Climate-KIC from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, together with over 110 EU cities, organizing the “Climathon” every year. An event that has joined together over 5,000 citizens (students, entrepreneurs, private and public sector workers and so on) to accelerate local solutions for climate resilience while promoting the green economy.
A further example is the German-based Climate Alliance city association which has developed the “Change the future” campaign as spin-off of a EU-funded project. The tool helps citizens embrace new ideas (freely available to replicate) for a sustainable lifestyle while earning points within a gamification process. Waste production and processing are arguably one of the biggest sources of city’s emissions. The Zero Waste Stockholm community, for instance, shares best practices for citizens and business alike, and promotes events where waste is tackled by creative workshops and learning and awareness events with the aim of reducing harmful environmental practices.
These are many more noteworthy examples where cities, stakeholders and communities are embrace the climate change challenge. The results are sometimes measurable and easy to evaluate. However, the main takeaway is this: scientists and economists alike consider the costs of inaction to be much greater that the costs of action, as adaptation and mitigation actions convert to broader safety, competitiveness and increased efficiency in the medium to long-term.
So, next time you see any nation resigning from the Paris Agreement or other environment covenants, ensure you use all your power as a citizen and a consumer to strengthen your community and demand action from your local representatives. We the people are active agents of revolution. Change your neighbourhood and your city, and the world will follow. You will be recognized for that by the most important people on earth: your children and grandchildren.
João Dinis is a sustainable development and climate resilience expert based in Cascais, Portugal
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