Addressing Climate Change – 17 Sustainable Ideas and COP17

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COP17 drew to a close on Friday, with some kind of international climate change deal agreed on. In this post, Joe Peach – editor of This Big City – and Rashiq Fataar – editor of Future Cape Town – look back over their collaborative series, discussing the best ideas explored and whether the agreement reached at COP17 is enough.

Joe Peach: Out of all our 16 ideas so far, which do you think has the most potential for encouraging sustainability?

Rashiq Fataar: I thought that starting with Robert Bowen’s post on 7 trends for post-oil cities was really good, because it threw you in to the deep end of what we could achieve in a world without oil. Not in a way that waffles on about what we think might work, but in a way that has actually been investigated academically. What I like is that it considers how a city actually needs to be designed, rather than highlighting disconnected ‘green’ ideas. It presents a need to change our culture rather than just stopping our use of oil.

JP: In terms of creating sustainable cities, I think our post on sustainable zoning has the most potential for real change. Lots of our ideas were about making things more sustainable than they currently are, for example, the post we did about new approaches to waste. This was a really popular post, but I strongly believe we should be massively reducing the amount we consume in the first place, so in terms of creating real significant change, I think zoning cities so they can be more sustainable could be a game changer.

RF: What do you think were the most important points made in that post?

JP: One really interesting point was having to accept the fact that if we make our cities more sustainable, they might well look different to how they currently look. That’s quite a big deal for a lot of people. City skylines could change, and lots of cities fight pretty hard to protect their skyline.

RF: In Cape Town we usually work to extremes. Any suggestion of the relaxation of our current height restriction results in this massive debate about buildings being taller than Table Mountain, which is just ludicrous.

JP: What do you think about the post we did on the sustainability of supposedly ‘green’ buildings? People spend a lot of time and money on these eco-buildings…

RF: These Green Star ratings in South Africa have become quite popular. It wasn’t long before our first 5 star green rated building was beaten by a 6 star building, and I think Mayra Hartmann raises an important point when she asks ‘are we adopting solutions that are good for the environment, or just in the context of a physical structure?’ This is something I have a real issue with. The 5 star building in Cape Town is in a sub-centre, and I’m not suggesting that anything outside the central business district is unsustainable, but our 6 star building is alongside a national highway. The majority of people arriving at the building will come in cars, and it hasn’t been located close enough to public transport. There should probably be a sustainable rating or index developed that looks at the building in its broader context. The Deputy Mayor of Cape Town suggested that buildings developed against the City’s plans should be downgraded, and those that work with the city’s goals, including being located alongside or close to proposed public transport routes, should be upgraded.

JP: I agree completely. It’s madness to ignore the wider context when considering sustainability. This brings me on to the posts we did that looked at social sustainability. There’s a lot of pressure for reducing emissions, but how does social sustainability fit in with this?

RF: It’s critical, especially from an African context were we live with these vast inequalities. Social sustainability is important, not just in the context of the impact on communities, but in terms of building use. We’re building a new tower in Cape Town that will only operate for 8 hours a day. Is that good, to have this 8 hour pocket of activity in a city?

JP: That’s a good point, because a building that had multiple uses would see more consistent use, potentially bringing much more value to a community.

RF: More activity means a more active public realm!

JP: Mixed use is a massive buzzword in development, in the UK at least, and it’s pretty rare at the moment for a large building to only have one use.

Heading back to COP17, yesterday news broke about this deal that has been agreed on, but with a pretty lengthy timeline attached to it. When we attended the screening of CNN’s Road to Durban they emphasised how much needs to be achieved by 2020, but this climate deal is based on us starting to implement stuff in 2020.

RF: On the one hand, it’s better to come away with something than not come away with something, on the other hand, from the perspective of an environmentalist, it’s really far from what should have been achieved. It’s pretty weak, if you consider the 2020 deadline. Kumi Naidoo from Greenpeace has called it a win for polluting corporations as the ambition and will to cut carbon emissions is now reduced. They’ve achieved what they wanted to and they can still go along doing things the way they have been doing things for the last ten years. I don’t think it’s a victory.

JP: Maybe it represents one step towards a bigger goal. If we can get this level of cooperation and keep moving with that, it could be a really significant moment in terms of tackling climate change on a global level.

RF: It’s a good start, and it’s being referred to as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, so it’s definitely a stepping stone. The important part, as you said, is countries listening to each other and making concessions. But what does this mean in terms of the US? They aren’t a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol in the first place. Does this mean another 5 years of them not doing anything?

JP: This ‘sense of urgency’ we’re talking about brings me to the interview I conducted with Daniel Popper – the artist behind the Baobab Tree. In a way, raising awareness of renewable energy through a piece of artwork is great, but hasn’t it gone way beyond that? Isn’t the time for raising awareness long gone? Hasn’t awareness already been raised?

RF: I see your point. I think it’s important to raise awareness in the right spheres. If we continue to raise awareness where there already is awareness, we’re just repeating the same message. But we visited Mthatha and Mvezo and saw that vast gap, a real lack of awareness. If we could create some kind of roadshow, we might achieve something as it could encourage people to make changes in their own communities. In an ideal world, we could pick up this tree and move it around South Africa, becoming a symbol for education and sustainability programmes. We’re aware, the EU is aware, but if you just step out of that, a large part of our country is not aware.

JP: We didn’t really get much opportunity to talk to the people in the village we visited. Do you really think there is a lack of awareness, or is this a lack of awareness on our behalf of their awareness?

RF: Perhaps, but looking at the issue with HIV/Aids, I think we’ve learned the harsh way about what a lack of education has meant, how these communities have been impacted. It’s my view that it’s the same with climate change. A point that was raised during COP by many civil society organisations was that we aren’t simplifying the messages around climate change, to encourage bus use over cars, or to encourage and teach people to start their own food gardens.

Moving on to the post about electric vehicles. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Joule, an electric vehicle being developed in South Africa. Do you think electric cars will take off in Europe and the UK much quicker?

JP: You could argue that it’s already taken off. More cars, of course, aren’t electric than are electric, but there are electric car charging points cropping up all over London, lots of businesses are using electric vehicles to get around within the city because they know they don’t need to drive too far.

RF: What are the incentives that have been created, obviously there is the congestion charge, but have there been any other incentives to prioritise the electric car in cities?

JP: There’s a couple of ways, obviously the one you mention – you don’t pay the congestion charge in London if you are driving an electric vehicle, and there’s also various parking spots, or charging spots, which are reserved exclusively for electric vehicles, so at the moment with electric vehicles not being driven by an enormous amount of people, it does mean that you can park more easily. There are definitely incentives, but you could say that we are barking up the wrong tree here, because a car is still a polluter, firstly because we don’t necessarily know how the electricity that powers it is being produced, and secondly because of its embodied energy. And also, a car can still kill people, so its still socially negative, whichever way you are powering it. It’s not an amazing solution that’s going to save the world. There’s also the fact that a car makes a street less safe for people. You are less likely to know your neighbours if you live on a street with lots of cars. There’s a lot of social issues stemming from car use.

RF: If we come to Mayra Hartmann’s tour of the High Line in New York, what role does urban space have to play? How do we communicate the benefits that these spaces can play as part of a bigger climate change agenda? Can we fill them up with renewable energies, or are these spaces alone a means to reduce carbon emissions?

JP: I think projects like the High Line are amazing, they provide something for people to do that is totally related to the space they are in, giving them enjoyment out of simply being in the city. It can be really beneficial for nature, for plant life, for animals that otherwise wouldn’t have a habitat, and I guess you could argue that there are benefits for absorbing carbon dioxide, but in reality I think the environmental benefits are secondary to the social benefits.

RF: Again, this points to the importance of social sustainability. But these spaces and the way we design them can also become tools for raising further awareness of environmental issues.

JP: The High Line isn’t full of any renewable energy production or anything, is there a missed opportunity there?

RF: I think that is going to become something that needs to be considered. Not out of a sense of urgency, but in terms of perhaps the evolution of what the High Line can mean for New York and as a symbol of environmental sustainability. Anything in New York is always magnified on a global scale – they could build a tiny new square and it would be in 2,000 blogs by tomorrow morning. They need to use the High Line to start promoting renewable energy. What about a green zone along the High Line, where buildings are encouraged to connect with the High Line and become more ‘green’? This could project a global message on going green.

JP: Maybe it’s time for another city to be innovative with its unused urban space!

RF: Cape Town has unused freeways which you can walk on, and as you may have experienced during your time here, it’s incredibly windy here! One can imagine small wind turbines attached to this edge of this highway as part of a High Line for Cape Town. I think it’s possible, and the Future Cape Town teams hopes to develop some concepts for such a space quite soon.

JP: One thing that is quite cool at the moment is a lot of pop-up developments happening in cities. Could there be potential for pop-up renewable energy generation on land that is not being used? It could be an interesting way of developing the pop-up concept.

RF: It’s interesting, but it always comes back to the complicated issue of ‘whose land is it?’ Coming back to your post on using empty buildings, there are so many in Cape Town we would love to get hold of.

JP: We’re quite lucky in the UK because we have a legal structure which makes it financially logical for a landlord to give up their empty building for a charity or social enterprise to use, so if it wasn’t for that I don’t believe it would be happening. It’s really very much a case of creating a legal framework which encourages landlords to essentially donate their buildings. If it makes sense to do it, why wouldn’t you?

RF: What are your thoughts on this Green City Index for Africa that we reported on?

JP: I think it is very interesting, provided you don’t have high expectations. Lots of people complain about their accuracy, and I just did the very same for an article recently, but I think people are missing the point. It’s not about listing the 30 greenest cities, because we have no definition of what ‘green’ is, so it’s not really possible. It’s more about showing what can be done, who’s making the best efforts, and providing the opportunity for people to learn about how they can make their cities more green, demonstrating the best examples. Creating a definitive list is not the point.

RF: When you create these sorts of rankings, there is often a complacency of those who are at the top to maybe not do more, or not think they need to invest more. By grouping cities together in bands, as they did with the African Green Cities Index, you are creating competition, hopefully driving people to do more regardless of their status in the list.

JP: Turn it into a competition with a prize for the city that has developed most over a year! This could be a great opportunity to encourage cities across the board to become more sustainable.

RF: I’m biased towards cities leading the climate agenda, and I think they need to take this to the next step. This would be possible both through creating some kind of prize structure like you mention but also formulating dialogues or forums between all cities on the list, whether in person or online. It would be even better if other African cities who weren’t listed were also involved. If you have all these cities, their mayors, their people, in dialogue across continents, that’s when you could create something special and powerful that translates into improved policies and maybe even action on the ground.

JP: Do you think that every city is going to have to densify to become more sustainable?

RF: I think compact cities, whether clusters of compact areas or other models, are best. In Cape Town we seem to have focussed on keeping everyone happy across our vast expanses of land, delivering services to everyone, but it’s going to take some political leadership to say ‘let’s focus on the compact areas’, to focus on the concept of creating compact hubs or clusters, where it is easier to provide public transport or infrastructure. It’s going to take some political will. In some European cases it’s been almost a necessity, and it’s going to be an advantage for African cities to discover this now, rather than in 25 years when it’s reached breaking point.

Looking at your post on reusing empty buildings, what is your view on adapting the existing building stock, whether to green them or for social benefit, as opposed to building new ‘innovation hubs’?

JP: It’s absolutely critical that we retrofit our current built environment, because the vast majority of buildings currently standing will still be standing in 50 years time, so we just have to make them as sustainable as we can, both environmentally and socially. We’ve had big problems in the UK with poorly designed social housing, as you guys have in South Africa, and there’s a lot that can be done. Ours are totally different to yours, being more dense and often more centrally located, but a lot can be done to change the negatives.

RF: Coming to the post on Germany’s green city, do you think it’s a bit isolationist to have a political party run a city, to develop their own set of rules and not impact the broader region?

JP: I don’t think a region can come up with their own rules that don’t influence the surrounding area. Of course we have a massive influence on the areas that surround us, and we can’t pretend that isn’t the case, as much as you might want to! I think if an area has an awesome idea on how to conduct themselves more sustainably, they should be sharing it with everybody!

RF: I’ve often heard of issues with gas pipelines that run through Europe, with certain countries threatening to cut off supplies to others. This leads to the post on exporting renewable energy. How could we do this differently?

JP: It would have to have a framework behind it that ensured people weren’t taken hostage for energy. We can’t end up in a position where one country has power over an entire continent, that would be terrible. This would need to be run by an independent body.

RF: If every country is investing in renewable energy on their own, while exporting is great, they would also have their own stable supply that is not entirely dependent on neighbouring countries. As we know, things go wrong across the EU, whether politically or via pipelines.

JP: And if something went wrong technically with that kind of system, you don’t want to end up in a position where an entire continent doesn’t have enough energy. But I do think this is a really good idea for those few countries that have the potential to produce more renewable energy than they require. We definitely should be looking at sustainable ways of getting that energy to other countries. South Africa has so much sun, the potential is massive.

RF: There is some urgency now here. There are plans for a solar park in the Northern Cape which could be a good symbol, but also a move towards reducing our reliance on electricity generated by coal powered stations. We can’t remain the southern country that uses five times as much energy as our northern counterparts.

JP: And produces a hell of a lot of carbon emissions in the process.

RF: How do you think these ideas we’ve been exploring have come together, or fit within a bigger picture of sustainable cities?

JP: I think that they have tackled quite a comprehensive range of topics. In a way, we haven’t directly addressed economic sustainability, so I think there is potential for more than 17 sustainable ideas.

RF: In the context of what’s taking place in the EU, economic sustainability definitely is just as critical as environmental and social issues. If countries are bailing out each other, what happens to investments in sustainable practices?

JP: There’s lots of talk about sustainable practices being economically beneficial, but we’re yet to see huge examples of this being publicised. It’s not being shouted about enough, and perhaps if it was, countries would be more willing to invest.

RF: Do you think in the future investments in sustainable practices will need to be ring-fenced?

JP: I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it got to the point where people were seriously bailing on their commitment, we would probably have to. I personally believe the economy should do the talking as much as possible, so I really do long for a point where it is just crystal clear that investing in sustainable practice was economically beneficial, to the point where there’d be no reason not to do it.

RF: I think China has already realised this…

JP: I agree.

RF:… they’re just not publicly announcing it. They’ve made so many advances in terms of manufacturing renewable energy sources and retrofitting cities, at some point perhaps the rest of the world will realise how far behind they are and how they’ve shot themselves in the foot economically.

JP: There was a bit of conspiracy theory talk going on at COP that suggested China are well aware of what they are doing, and then coming out at the end of it all with a completed sustainable system and taking everyone by surprise. Ta-dah! I’m not sure if that is happening, but they certainly seem to be more engaged than a lot of other countries.

RF: I personally did not know they are the largest investor in renewable energy, which took me by surprise. I’m also not surprised that they have anticipated the national interest and economic benefit of being ahead of the curve.

JP: I think it’s great that is happening, and if they are the first country to do it on this scale hopefully they’ll show what can be achieved, and everyone will be more eager to follow.

Read every post from the ’17 Sustainable Ideas for COP 17′ series here.

Image courtesy of DECCgovuk on flickr