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Why Climate Action Plans are not Good Enough to Deliver a Low-Carbon Future in Cities

Karishma Asarpota* is an urban planner, blogger and researcher who holds a Master of Science degree in Urbanism from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Illustration by Cliff van Thillo

DUBAI, Apr 23 2019 (IPS) - Though climate policies aim to reduce GHG emissions, they miss out on emphasizing the importance of urban planning policies

Cities that have ratified the Paris Agreement and pledged to reduce carbon emissions are adopting climate action plans aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

These plans promote the improvement of infrastructure efficiency in urban areas, incentivize residents to reduce energy consumption and increase renewable forms of energy production. These goals are becoming the accepted global norms for climate action policies whether it is based in Vancouver, Oslo, Dubai or Hong Kong.

A common theme amongst these strategies is the emphasis on improving the environmental performance of urban infrastructure such as transport, energy production, building design and waste management. Another point to note is that a lot of cities orient their climate strategies to respond to the contribution from GHG emissions.

For example, in Oslo 63% of GHG emissions are contributed from transportation. This is reflected in Oslo’s Climate and Energy Strategy where most of the actions are aimed at reducing transport related GHG emissions.

On the contrary, in Hong Kong, about 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused from generating electricity almost entirely used in buildings. Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan places a heavy emphasis on reducing building related energy use and GHG emissions.

This seems like a sensible approach that is based on emissions data accompanied by engineered solutions that are tested by simulation models. For example, energy policies suggest that the efficiency of heating systems in a building can be increased by upgrading to a heat pump or improving circuiting.

This is no doubt a viable solution. But heating efficiency can also be improved if buildings are designed in response to the local microclimate to be able to retain heat thus reducing the amount of energy needed in the first place.

However, modelling tools lack the precision and capability of integrating factors like microclimate and density. This gap is visible in climate strategies as the emphasis on urban development patterns is weak.

The link between climate action plans & urban development plans

A lot of policies in climate strategies propose changes to the organization of urban areas. For example, almost every city encourages its residents to walk and cycle more to reduce the dependency on cars.

While they also emphasize that more infrastructure to support pedestrians and cyclists should be put in place, they fail to demonstrate what this will look like. Will this change the way in which we build our neighborhoods?

Perhaps we will need wider pavements and narrower roads? These questions are left for urban development plans to answer. But how many of them actually pick up where climate strategies leave off?

Urban development plans in cities are usually responsible to lay out the vision for future developments or to make changes to existing development. Cities that have tried to respond to energy efficiency or GHG reduction in their urban development plans do so by promoting the implementation of neighbourhood energy systems (NES), increasing walkability or advocating for green building design.

All these measures can undoubtedly help, but are not being implemented fast enough through policies or regulations. Promoting this through awareness programs or pilot projects is not as effective for a widespread change.

For example, In Oslo, ‘role model’ or pilot projects aimed at reducing energy consumption or GHG emissions are meant to inspire change and serve as an example of efficient and sustainable urban development.

Oslo’s Climate and Energy Strategy presents an example of best practice but does not mandate the adoption of sustainable design principles as a norm for future urban development.

A similar example is seen in Dubai, where Dubai Sustainable City – which is a neighbourhood with a low carbon impact – is seen as a pioneer example of sustainable urban development in the city.

But the development lies about 30 km away from the center of the city, disconnected from any public transit line making residents dependent on using a car for daily commute. This counters emissions that residents save by living in the neighbourhood. Are these disconnected sustainable urban development projects really helping?

The impact of neighbourhood energy systems

One can argue that it is perhaps easier to implement regulations that have a direct technological application, for example, implementing green building design or a Neighbourhood Energy System (NES). Even though these measures are beneficial, they undermine the importance of architectural or urban design and planning solutions.

Let’s take an example of a neighbourhood urban development plan for West End in Vancouver. One part of the plan advocates for policy based design solutions such as passive design, climate change adaptation for infrastructure and public space design.

The plan also strongly advocates for a Neighbourhood Energy System (NES), where heat is produced at a central point and then distributed to individual buildings. This is a viable option only in a dense neighbourhood. So, in a way, urban development is guided by the implementation of energy infrastructure.

The West End plan is one of the better examples. But what it fails to address is space between buildings. Energy systems, building design and infrastructure design are addressed individually. Will the connection between these areas make a difference to how the neighbourhood is planned?

Green Building Design

Let’s look at building design. Globally, about 36% of emissions are contributed from buildings and about 39% of energy is consumed by buildings. This can be helped if buildings consider the local microclimate and use principles of passive solar design, which means that buildings are designed to store, reflect and distribute the sun’s energy.

This would result in the building consuming less energy for heating or cooling. Many studies show that passive design strategies in buildings can help to decrease energy consumption by almost 80%! Yet climate strategies don’t mandate the adoption of passive building design strategy for every building in the city.

We often find that cities promote green building rating systems like LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Design) or BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method).

For example, in Hong Kong, BEAM is the prefered green building rating system. In addition to this, the city has developed two additional regulatory tools, B(EE)R (or Building Energy Efficiency Regulations) and BEEO (or Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance).

Energy use is monitored and improved through these measures. However, these regulations don’t say much about passive solar design.

In Dubai, Al Safat Green Building regulations, which is a locally developed building regulation aimed at improving efficiency and life cycle of buildings, has been implemented only since 2017. Since its inception the first level of the guidelines are mandatory for all new buildings.

But this does not include essential passive design principles such as building orientation or the proportion of glass that buildings are allowed to use. Going forward, all building councils and municipalities need to ask if there is any purpose of buildings regulations that are not able to mandate passive solar design strategies.

But can climate strategies still be successful?

Climate strategies in cities are able to provide directives and set out targets to align with the global emissions target. This is a step in the right direction but is not sufficient. Climate strategies set out concrete targets to reduce GHG emissions and energy use.

However, climate action plans are never able to say that they can achieve their goals through adopting the proposed measures. The proposed actions are never equated to any numerical data that can indicate to what extent it can help to achieve the goals.

This shows that although climate strategies are able to provide directive a lot more needs to be done if we want to truly achieve a low-carbon future. The role of urban planning and design is crucial in responding to climate sensitive design because it is able to challenge existing norms that don’t contribute to energy efficiency. Planning can help to bridge the gap between the organization of space (architectural and urban design) and decision making in cities.

A good example of this the ‘complete streets’ program launched in Vancouver. This policy based design strategy aims to promote safe, well maintained and environmentally responsible streets in Vancouver at the neighbourhood level.

Through this program communities can come together and design the components of streets in their neighbourhood. What makes this program likely to be successful is that it is a part of the city’s 2040 transport vision and funding for its implementation has been secured in late 2018.

We need to start seeing more policy-based design solutions that respond to local conditions in cities. These solutions should be accompanied by an implementation strategy to help it become more widespread.

    Karishma Asarpota’s work addresses climate changes related issues in cities, especially involving the energy transition. She is experienced in working on urban development projects in Europe, Middle East, India and Brazil and is actively engaged with YOUNGO (youth constituency of UNFCCC) as a coordinator of the Cities Working Group.
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