Climate Change and the City

Thursday, 23 October, 2014

Photography by Sarah Valle

If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you believe climate change exists, it is being predominantly caused by human activity, and that it’s bloody important that we do something about it. You may think of climate change as an issue played out on the global scale, as nations negotiate carbon emissions targets, balancing economic growth and development against the need to prevent environmental catastrophe. Conversely, you may think of it on a local or personal scale, with individuals taking responsibility for their impact on the planet.

But there’s a level smack in the middle of these two extremes that is often overlooked: our cities. The world is urbanising and, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lives in urbanised areas. This is more pronounced in Australia, one of the most urbanised countries in the world, where the vast majority of the population lives in a handful of relatively large coastal cities. Cities contain most of our population, but also most of our economic activity and carbon emissions. They are, therefore, an excellent place to concentrate our efforts on climate change.

There are plenty of ways in which the form and functioning of cities like Melbourne can determine their carbon emissions and their vulnerability to the climate change that will inevitably occur. Transport is a major contributor to carbon emissions, and so the way people get around and the distances they have to travel directly influences emission levels. The design of buildings determines how much energy is required to heat and cool them, and also how their inhabitants will be impacted by extreme weather. Where settlement occurs, and how it responds to environmental hazards such as flooding and bushfire, is hugely important when it comes to vulnerability to climate change.

Planning and other types of policies put in place by governments have huge potential to take action both in terms of climate change mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions and therefore the magnitude of climate change) and adaptation (reducing the impact of the climate change that does occur). However, as I argue in a chapter co-authored with climate scientists David Karoly and John Wiseman in the forthcoming ebook Melbourne: What Next?, this potential has been far from realised, with the Victorian Government failing to take climate change seriously, particularly in its metropolitan planning strategy, Plan Melbourne.

What does this mean for us as Melburnians, and for those of us who are young people inheriting a world shaped by the decisions of previous generations? Well, let’s start with the science. Average temperatures across Australia have risen by 0.9 degrees Celsius since 1910, with most of this warming occurring since 1950. Research by the CSIRO estimates that, compared to 1990, average temperatures in Melbourne will be 0.9 degrees higher by 2030 and between 1.4 and 2.8 higher by 2070, based on low and high emissions scenarios. Average temperature isn’t the only important factor, as climate change will also cause extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and heatwaves. A seemingly small increase in average temperature will increase the number of very hot days each day; compared to an average of 9.1 days over 35 degrees per year between 1980 and 1999, we are projected to see 19.8 such days in 2070 in the high emissions scenario.

The types of impacts this will have on our city can be seen in the problems that are caused by extreme weather today, which can be partially attributed to climate change that has already occurred. Everybody who lives in Melbourne is aware of the disruptions to public transport systems that occur during the hottest summer days, as well as electricity blackouts. Such problems will only get worse if sufficient action is not taken. While missed trains and lack of air conditioning might be dismissed as relatively trivial problems in the scheme of things, the reality is that these have significant impacts on terms of economic loss and health risks, respectively. Increases in the intensity and frequency of heat waves lead to increased hospital admissions for heat stress and other illnesses, and increased mortality, particularly among vulnerable people such as the elderly or those who do not speak English as a first language. This is to say nothing of major disasters such as floods, storms and bushfires, which have the potential to cause massive loss of property and life.

Climate change is already adversely affecting us here in Melbourne, and the problems will get much worse unless we make sure to slow it down as much as possible and create a resilient city that best deals with what impacts do occur. As stated previously, the city is a great place to start, particularly in Australia, where cities are home to most of our country’s people and activity.

Cities are complex systems and anything like serious action on climate change must take this into account, treating such action and environmental sustainability generally as a key principle in the plan for the city’s future. Unfortunately, the most recent strategy, Plan Melbourne, fails to do so, addressing environmental issues only in one section of the strategy, rather than as a key element throughout. In contrast, themes of economic growth and productivity are dominant throughout the whole document. It is clear that this government does not see action on climate change as a priority. Otherwise, the need to implement serious carbon emissions reductions would be a top priority in policy on transport, energy and urban form, and the need to create a resilient city would be similarly important in building design standards, where settlement is allowed (particularly with regards to flood or bushfire prone areas) and developing systems to respond to threats at the city scale.

There is some good work being done already at the local government level, particularly among those councils that are fortunate enough to be well resourced, such as the City of Melbourne, which has fairly comprehensive strategies for both mitigation and adaptation. It has also been selected to be one of the Rockefeller Foundations 100 Resilient Cities that will receive $1 million in funding to develop a resilience strategy for the entire city, not just the municipality. Other councils that are doing promising work include Yarra and Moreland, which have set up and are funding energy foundations to support locals to transition to a zero carbon society, providing advice on things such as installing solar panels and improving the energy efficiency of buildings.

A good first step for the city would be for the Victorian Government to recognise the good work currently being done by local governments and others, and facilitate the scaling up of these initiatives to the metropolitan level. However, some pretty fundamental things also need to change to ensure Melbourne becomes the zero carbon, resilient city that it must become. The first order of business would be sending a clear political message that climate change action is a priority, which would require governments of all levels to work together, as well as bipartisanship across party lines. It would also involve setting emissions reduction targets, and using these as a starting point to determine the next course of action and mediate any trade-offs that might need to occur.

The next steps are ensuring that Plan Melbourne is implemented in a way that achieves those targets. One of the biggest items on the agenda will be transport, which is a significant contributor to the city’s carbon emissions. Environmental sustainability, not just economic productivity, must be key in driving transport decisions, with the end goal being less car travel and more public transport use, cycling and walking, as well as transitioning to electric vehicles, rather than those fuelled by petrol or gas. Where we get our energy from is also hugely important, so the work of the Yarra and Moreland Energy Foundations could be scaled up to facilitate transition to renewable energy sources. Government policy can also put emissions standards into place for all new buildings across the city, taking into account emissions both from construction and across building lifetimes, as well as providing incentives for retrofitting existing buildings and equipment to become more energy efficient and resilient to climate change.

Transforming a city to become zero carbon and resilient enough to deal with the climate change that will inevitably occur is not an easy task. But these are the goals we need to set and work towards to avoid costly impacts and even catastrophe. In a globalised world where cities are becoming key actors on the world stage and home to more people than ever, they are the best place to start on this important endeavour. It’s a pity our government has dropped the ball in its current plan for our city, but this – especially in an election year – is not the end of the fight.

Melbourne: What Next? will be available for free download from 6pm on October 13th on the website of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. Go here.