How should Birmingham react to a Global Report on Climate Change

NCER

Has it happened to you? You realised you have missed an important document in your field? Well it happened to me when I was listening to Albert Bore giving his Brussels speech in October 2014  on how cities and regions can lead in the response to climate change. Now I don’t think this is a secret but Albert doesn’t usually write his speeches; he has some really quite clever people, specialists in their fields, behind him that produce them for him. So listening to him he referenced the New Climate Economy Report and its positive view of the role of cities in producing low carbon growth. I knew I needed to read it. Albert’s Speech can be downloaded here

I have only just got around to reading the NCER and specifically the chapter on cities it but it confirms a lot of what I thought. But let’s touch on first what the main message of the report which is whilst we have to go some to keep to the 2 degree warming target  (in fact many people think it will be 4 or 5 degrees) the authors think the 2 degrees is just about feasible and could be reached with actions that will at the same time have largely positive outcomes for economic growth. ie we can have economic growth as well as reducing our carbon content.

Various version of the report can be downloaded here.

It looks at 3 different systems that need to undergo transition, these are not the only areas of change but perhaps the main ones. It looks at urban areas, land use and energy production and whilst it is all fascinating I must admit to only seriously reading the part on cities.

What does the City Chapter say. (Download here).

The clear message is that all cities have to change and importantly can benefit from such change. Cities can be economically more productive as well as more environmentally friendly.

It splits cities into three main categories

Emerging Cities: such as Chengdong (China), Bogota (Colombia) and Curtiba (Brazil)

Global Megacities: such as Beijing (China), Mumbai (India) and London (UK)

Mature Cities: such as Hamburg (Germany), Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Barcelona (Spain)

The biggest challenge is where cities are growing rapidly – largely in the emerging cities definition. The rate of urbanisation in the world is immense. The report estimates that by 2050 at least 2.5bn extra will be living in urban areas. That is a population of the size of Stockholm (1.4m) being added every week to the worlds urban areas. However it makes the point importantly not only do we have to be careful how we build these new cities but also it stresses the need for adaptation of existing cities.

It foresees as feasible that the worlds 724 largest cities can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by upto 1.5bn tonnes annually by 2030 – largely by transformative change in transport systems.

It has three main mantra for the future of cities

  • Compact urban growth: Compact cities with higher densities
  • Connected Infrastructure: With Smart transport systems
  • Coordinated Governance: especially for l;and use and transportation across the urban area.

This 3 C approach can bring a new wave of urban productivity as – compact growth will lead to higher agglomeration economic benefits and higher economic growth. More compact cities need less public infrastructure investment which is more efficiently used. This is illustrated by lower costs for the transport sector. More compact cities are easier to cycling and walk in and therefore have wider environmental and health benefits. So this approach on average is better for the economy and for the environment.

The report illustrates how major cities have broken that link between economic growth and GHG emissions – the graphs below show Stockholm and Copenhagen’s recent experience and how others can follow. It is important to note despite being leaders in the field both cities are not resting on their laurels – for instance look at Copenhagen’s bold plans to be climate neutral by 2025 – here.

Copenhagen and Stockholm

BIRMINGHAM

So how does this important report relate to Birmingham and its policies. Well it confirms

1) The need for greater financial control and decision making and the key arguments that are being made through Core Cities etc. Cities need the power to invest, the resources to invest and the control of elements such as transport to maximise growth and minimise carbon.

2) It supports the need for decision making at a functional economic area. So it supports the move towards establishing a Combined Authority for the urban area – where investment decisions on transportation and economic development can be strategically evaluated. A big benefit of joining together is to achieve greater control over business rates. Currently the City Council/the LEP through the Enterprise Zone  is willing to borrow up to £250m because it will get back this through the business rate uplift – which is locked in for 25 years. Manchester in its deal with George Osborne seem to have extended this policy and if this approach was spread across the West Midlands urban area this could potentially unlock billions of pounds of investment for the positive change that is needed.

3) It re-iterates the real importance of the work that the Green Commission has undertaken and its implementation. I was taken recently by what progress there has been since the publication of its Carbon Road Map. Namely in the development of the Cycle Ambition project, the extensions of the Combined Heat and Power system in the city centre; the potential powering of this network by the EBRI scheme and the investment in low carbon innovators at Innovation Birmingham – to name just a few projects. Birmingham has made progress in reducing its emissions as the Green Commission’s work has shown and this must continue. (Link here)

But what more can Birmingham do.  Well its draft Mobility plan – Birmingham Connected (@BhamConnected) – White Paper is due out tomorrow (12th November 2014) and this is the opportunity to make a  step change in this city.

a) This needs to come out fully in support of public transport, cycling and walking taking precedence over the car. There a whole host of different approaches outlined in the document that cities across the world have taken – and to date Birmingham has few of such programmes.

b) This needs as well to tackle the issue of raising resources for the significant investment that is needed and so it needs to seize the opportunity of the power that the City already has to implement a workplace parking levy. There is no need complaining to Government – this power exists and Nottingham for instance has taken the political risk and implemented such a scheme. Nottingham is a City where two major tram lines are close to being completed – as opposed to minor additions as is currently proposed in Birmingham’s network.

In its economic policy it needs to;

c) More closely link its economic policy with the low carbon agenda. This report shows the economic benefit of a low carbon approach.  It can learn from Bristol in that its Enterprise Zone is very clearly looking at low carbon as a key theme. It, as part of this, is proposing to build the most energy efficient Arena – certainly in the UK. Birmingham’s could easily embrace and tweak its approach to its Enterprise Zone but it so far has missed the opportunity and makes mistakes like the pinch point funding road widening proposals that will ultimately be self defeating. The Enterprise Zone  Investment Plan (link here) doesn’t even mention low carbon/ green growth.

d) It needs as well to keep an officer resource to deliver on these key areas. Whilst budget cuts are horrendous it must keep expertise to deliver. There is  a need for such ‘transition teams’. It could use the funding from the Enterprise Zone to funding much of this work (and the team) as well as the traditional economic development it is more used to.

Generally Birmingham is ahead of the game; with path breaking research and research institutions, a clear roadmap to a low carbon future and this report just stresses the need to keep on at it. Birmingham just needs to think out of the box, importantly join up policies and investments more so that for instance economic development and transportation policies and proposals are not developed in silos.

Tomorrow is a big day for the City and I hope that the Birmingham Connected White paper whilst bringing benefits for all does it from a view point that stresses the need for change and the benefits of change.

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