Paul Chatterton – Act like it’s an emergency. A guide for urban policy makers

To stop climate change requires urban policy makers to now act like it’s an emergency, and what this actually means in practice.

Paul Chatterton, is Professor of Urban Futures at the University of Leeds

Cross-posted from Policy Leeds

Climate protest sign saying Wake Up! Climate Emergency. Image overlaid in the corner by the text Leeds at COP26.

Back in 2018, the IPCC boldly stated in their Special Report that avoiding dangerous levels of global warming would require rapid and far reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure which are unprecedented in terms of scale. Now in 2021, in their 6th Assessment Report they stated that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C, or even 2°C, will be beyond reach.

We are fast running out of adjectives to describe what may soon come to pass for local and global society. In the run up to COP26, what do these basket of strong words (rapid, immediate, unprecedented, large-scale, far reaching) words mean for urban policy makers? What can they actually do differently right now in their daily practices to make the intent of these messages from the IPCC real as soon as possible? How can they radically decarbonise their places, while also ensuring social justice and nature recovery is at the heart of what they do? Let’s take a look at three action areas — transport, biodiversity and the local economy.

Commit to car free cities

Cities continue to be hugely car dependent and a significant part of city-based emissions remains tied up in surface transport. Moves away from the internal combustion engine and a shift to electric vehicles (EVs) have been sluggish, and are not able to yield the significant annual decreases in carbon emissions needed to get us to net zero by the 2030s. Acting like it’s a climate emergency means committing to car free cities — basically rapidly unlocking cities from car dependency.

Some big moves are needed over the next decade to realise this. First, traffic levels will need to be reduced, some say by up to 60% between now and 2030, if dangerous levels of global warming are to be avoided. A group of UK MPs put it simply: to meet ambitious targets for emission reductions, there needs to be a phasing out of personal car use within a decade or so.

But it is what happens now, year on year, which is important. This means immediate and large scale reallocations of road space, shrinking of the overall road network across urban areas, by perhaps 5% per year. What underpins the shift away from car dependency is localising the economy, bringing work, leisure, education and retail closer to people. The 20 minute neighbourhood idea provides opportunities to rethink communities where local goods and services are easily reached within a 20 minute walk without relying on the car.

An ambitious re-imagination of public transport is needed, recasting it as a basic service that is free, fully electric and publicly owned. This will help with any public backlash and provide workable alternatives as car use is constrained and regulated through levies and taxes. Urban authorities could make early moves, committing to car free city centres by 2025 (apart from selective electric vehicles for those with mobility issues), further supporting city centre renewal as part of COVID recovery. Ghent and Milan are early pioneers here, with UK cities such as Birmingham exploring what they can learn.

Change the urban economy

Focusing on reducing carbon emissions often obscures why those emissions are produced in the first place. City authorities serious about tackling dangerous climate change need to tackle the urban economy. Put simply, it is the form and function of local economies that largely drive the level of carbon emissions. Acting like it is a climate emergency involves, then, some big shifts for city economies.

The whole purpose of our economy needs to be rethought. Too often, cities are locked into competition with other places, in a cycle of attracting global inward investors and low paid, precarious jobs. Innovative approaches like those from the doughnut economics action lab highlight the potential for a new purpose for urban economies, away from simple economic growth to thinking about how places and people can thrive. The headline task of this new economy is how can we all live well within the limits of our planet? Important big policy moves exist here, including trialling income guarantees and various forms of basic income, sharing work more equitably through four day week initiatives, but also reducing the level of household debt through debt write-offs and rent controls (for more on this, also see Beth Stratford and Dan O’Neill’s policy brief on the path to a doughnut shaped recovery).

Creating a more localised economy, where new green jobs are created and work is shared more equitably, is one important route to driving down city emissions. Creating opportunities for local consumption and production can also uncouple localities from high carbon globalised supply chains. Building what is known as the social and solidarity economy through supporting community wealth building is key here, especially in terms of supporting co-operative enterprises and green job transitions as part of a broader green new deal. This move is especially important given the increasing focus on levelling up long standing economic divisions between cities. Our efforts also need to focus on climate justice, and so our climate action efforts need to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our cities.

Recover, rewild and regenerate urban nature

This is not just a climate emergency, it is also an ecological emergency. This is the focus of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill currently supported in the UK by 118 MPs. The UN has found biodiversity is rapidly declining, and ways to create a more equal balance with non-human species are urgently needed. COVID lockdowns highlighted for all of us the importance of local green spaces. But now urban action policy needs to go much further in the light of the climate and ecological emergencies.

Bold action is needed to recover and rewild our cities for resilience, restore damaged natural areas, reduce dependency on intensive animal farming as well as meat-based diets, and build resilience to extreme weather events. City wide programmes for connected urban green spaces and biodiversity corridors need to be radically and rapidly expanded, built on reallocated road networks, and drawing on pioneering examples of reimagining road space. Neighbourhood placemaking needs to be inspired by nature, interweaving the places we live with extensive natural spaces. When linked to active travel networks this can also can reduce car dependency and create options for meaningful leisure. Incorporating local food production and blue-green infrastructure can further increasing future crisis resilience. But underpinning all of this is a different sense of what it means to be human — that we are only one species in a delicate intricate web with many other species, all of whom have an equal claim to life on earth.

What now?

This is a direct plea to urban politicians and policy makers — it’s time not just to declare climate, nature and social emergencies. It’s time to act like these are real.

Draw up an ambitious plan that demonstrates how you will implement policy in line with the current scientific evidence. Innovative citizen-based platforms can be used to crowd source ideas and tested through citizen assemblies.
Plans need to offer action that is rapid, immediate, unprecedented, large-scale and far reaching. While these may be more disruptive and costly in the short-term, they are the only viable options for a safe and sustainable future in the medium and longer term.

We all now face a decade of great transformation. This is an immense challenge, but also an immense opportunity. We are probably the last generation of urban professionals who can embark upon changes that can avert the existential crisis we face. This opportunity to show leadership and act like it’s an emergency must not be wasted.

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