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Of one accord: Planners and climate change

Words: Simon Wicks
Global warming

The Paris Agreement marks a historic accord in the challenge to tackle climate change. How can planning help to deliver its goals? Simon Wicks reports

In early December 2015 the world agreed on how to limit climate change. After a fortnight of intense negotiation, all 196 countries at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP21) consented to the Paris Agreement.

Its keystone is a commitment to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, with an “endeavour” to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Achieving this will require a sea change in the way we generate and use energy. “This has basically said that fossil fuels have had their day,” says Naomi Luhde-Thompson, Friends of the Earth’s planning adviser.

We need also to consider how humans can minimise their environmental impact through the design of settlements and transport systems, patterns of consumption, environmental protections, building standards, business practices… the list goes on and raises the question: How?

"We’re at 25 per cent renewable energy at the moment, but we’ve got to get close to 100 per cent,” says Rob Shaw, director of sustainability and climate change at environmental planning and design consultancy LDA Design. “To deliver on the targets we’re going to have to think again.”

"We’re going to have to move away from speculative applications for renewables"

Thinking again, for Shaw, means viewing plan-making as the act of fitting the various pieces of the climate change mitigation and adaptation jigsaw together. “We’re going to have to move away from speculative applications for renewables,” he says by way of example.

“We need to bring renewables – and risk management – into the plan-making process.”

Specifically, he’d like to see the National Grid brought into the planning process, so that energy planning can happen in concert with planning for housing, schools, retail, employment and so forth.

“My clients put in planning applications based on criteria that are primarily not within the gift of planning,” Shaw explains. “They’re looking at places where there’s capacity on the grid, and that leads to sub-optimal outcomes, conflict with communities over land use and a ‘them and us’ mentality. By bringing it into the plan-making process we can have an allocation of sites.”

The future of energy, he says, is local – and much will be created on our own properties. But for configuration to work, energy companies and local government will have to work out how they can generate revenue from a profoundly different generation and distribution mechanism.

Such revenues will be necessary to fund innovation and the maintenance of infrastructure. With central government funding for renewables unlikely, regional bodies may have to step into the breach. Devolution could be a lever for change.

A framework for the future?

A 15-paragraph section of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is dedicated to explaining how planners can “meet the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change”. The critical paragraph is number 93, which states:

“Planning plays a key role in helping shape places to secure radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, minimising vulnerability and providing resilience to the impacts of climate change, and supporting the delivery of renewable and low-carbon energy and associated infrastructure. This is central to the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.”

First among equals

“Climate change is so specialised in its implementation and needs that the planning system has to be the most appropriate mechanism for doing it,” says Shaw. He and Luhde-Thompson both argue that planners already have the legal and policy tools to deliver much of what is needed.

“It’s [about] the level of weight that’s given to climate change mitigation,” says Luhde-Thompson. “Paragraph 93 of the NPPF is extremely positive. But climate change has to be the first among equals now. Planners have to be able to give it more weight. It has to be considered in every decision. But that’s not necessarily what’s happening.”

Luhde-Thompson’s concern is that an emphasis on planning for economic growth has drowned out those other two pillars of sustainable development, the fulfillment of social and environmental aims. A political steer is needed.

"Climate change has to be the first among equals now"

“It would be very important for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to come out and say how important tackling climate change is and to reinforce the NPPF,” she says.

To date, however, there has been a gap between rhetoric and reality. A week after the Paris Agreement, the government slashed subsidies for solar energy and handed out 93 fracking licences. It has scrapped onshore wind subsidies, ditched the zero-carbon homes standard and talked up the role of gas in “bridging the gap” to a low-carbon future.

Such policy signals are discouraging, says Shaw. “The investment community is going to be very, very nervous of taking what was meant to be a very clear policy signal towards more gas.”

Shaw’s reading is that government has been anxious that the speed of transition towards renewables was putting the UK at an economic disadvantage. The Paris Agreement, however, will create a kind of level playing field internationally. “Now that you’ve got this legally binding target and a five-year ‘stocktake’, it will give a clear, strong signal to the market and give the ability to government to say, ‘Look, we need to do something because everyone else is doing something as well’.”

But with good intentions unlikely to turn into cash, money “needs to come from corporate bodies at the level of local authorities and LEPs. We can see the value economically in investing in climate change mitigation and adaptation, so let’s properly resource that”, he adds.

Low-carbon world

UK cities are already making strides towards carbon-free operations, says Jackie Homan, head of sustainability at Birmingham City Council. “Around climate change cities have got quite ambitious plans in place already,” she says.

“For example, the Green Commission in Birmingham already has a 60 per cent carbon reduction target against a 1990 baseline.” This 2027 target is part of a wider ‘Carbon Roadmap’ and presently “mainly driven by things such as addressing healthy air quality and a modal shift in public transport to reduce congestion”.

But Birmingham is also just one of three cities, with Amsterdam and Mumbai, piloting the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Net Zero Emission City programme. Its focus in Birmingham is on the 14-hectare city centre Smithfield redevelopment.

"What’s coming out of COP 21 is starting to make people realise that we need to mainstream these things"

“We’re looking at how we can work with the private sector on making zero emissions an investable proposition,” says Homan, adding: “What’s coming out of COP 21 is starting to make people realise that we need to mainstream these things. This is a global issue and it’s something that everybody needs to address.”

Business models must be proven and policy reinforced before investors are confident enough to release substantial funds. Cash is, as ever, the pinch point.

Birmingham’s endeavour to bring private and public sectors together is also evident in the Birmingham District Energy Company run with Cofely District Energy. What Holman would really like to see is more programmes like the £120 million London Green Fund, which harnesses European, local authority and private funding. “Local authorities can’t do it on their own, but neither can the private sector,” she says.

In accord

The main points of the Paris climate change accord in brief:

- Keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0°C and “endeavour to limit” them to 1.5°C

- Limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally

- Review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years

- Rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to fund climate change adaptation and renewable energy

A long-term view

Blogging about COP21, the RTPI’s chief executive Trudi Elliott observed that the economic argument in favour of low-carbon living needs to be won before serious transformation can occur.

“Investments in sustainable transport and housing that are critical for low- carbon futures and for inclusive development are also essential inputs into economic growth,” she wrote. “As the French Prime Minister’s Office outlined before the conference, ‘the task of COP21 is to send strong policy signals that determined climate action is needed and will not harm the economy. In fact, these actions will trigger multiple employment, health and human development benefits by aligning strengthened short-term economic growth with long-term sustainable development goals’.”

Marion Frederiksen, the RTPI’s international policy and research officer, insists that planners can provide both the long-term vision and the understanding of sustainable development. But planning must also recognise that climate change adaptation is an international drive that will involve countries sharing resources.

We can all learn from elsewhere, says Frederiksen, even from the developing nations that richer countries are obliged by the Paris Agreement to support. “Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador have the environment written into their constitution. It doesn’t matter if you have a change of government, the rights of nature still have to be observed.”

"We need to make sure that every planning decision is having to count towards greenhouse gas emissions"

Even the World Bank recognises that planners are “one of the professions best placed to assist in implementing international agreements on sustainable development”. It is recruiting planners to guide its infrastructure loans.

In a post-Paris Agreement world, planners could have an integral role to play in mitigating and adapting to climate change. But the stars will have to align across legislation, policy and funding. In the present climate it’s possible. “There’s been a lot stronger commitment than anybody thought a year ago,” says Frederiksen.

Can we do it? Yes, says Luhde-Thompson, but planners must be constantly mindful. “We need to make sure that every planning decision is having to count towards greenhouse gas emissions.”


Read what else our interviewees had to say

We didn't have the space here to feature what our interviewees said in full. You can read their thoughts on the Paris Agreement in more detail here.