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Pulling together is the least we can do in the face of Climate Change

The planning system is central to delivering and coordinating many of the ‘rapid and far-reaching transitions’ the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for. But it will require sheer political will to pull off the scale of the change and cooperation needed. Given this, the lack of coverage of their recent report in national newspapers and the Government’s silence on the subject are both concerning.

IPCC: good planning can reduce greenhouse gas emissions

The IPCC report makes for profound and sobering reading for the sector. Indeed, virtually all of its recommendations for limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and the “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings)”will in some ways touch on the work of planners around the world.

The report cites evidence that effective urban planning can reduce GHG emissions from urban transport between 20% and 50%. It spells out a series of planning policies we need to adopt globally: dense, pedestrianised cities; compact growth along public-transit corridors; the rollout of green infrastructure; renewable energy and smart grids; highly energy efficient buildings; and significant reductions in car use.

Climate justice – an emerging theme at the RTPI

The RTPI has consistently argued that effective spatial planning is essential to making the transformational changes required. Climate change mitigation is a thread that runs through all of work. Our recent paper on Settlement Patterns, Urban Form and Sustainable Development, for example, shows how planners can influence the shape of the built environment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport and buildings, while our Location of Development project monitors the sustainability of housing growth from a transport perspective.

A key strand of our current research programme concerns climate change directly. For the remainder of 2018 and throughout next year, this will focus specifically on the concept of ‘climate justice’ - a term which draws attention to how climate change affects communities differently and their varying abilities to respond.

There is now strong evidence that while climate change affects us all, the poorest will suffer the worst while having contributed to it the least. As such, climate change is fundamentally a question of fairness and equality – as planning should be in general.

We are also supporting more technical research on climate-change subjects - from environmental building standards to green infrastructure, from urban heat stress to energy for transport. An interesting example is research we recently commissioned from Regen SW to explore how the planning system can support rather than hinder the roll-out of ‘smart’ energy grids, which will play a key role in enabling the ‘rapid and far-reaching transitions’ the IPCC calls for.

‘Miracles’ do happen

Earlier this year we published a guide for local authorities on adaptation and mitigation, in collaboration with the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA).

The report highlights that there are opportunities for local authorities to push hard for adaptation and mitigation, in spite of a national policy context which so often serves to frustrate rather than support their ambitions.

After the guide’s launch event in May, Country Life magazine described the guide as ‘”ground-breaking… It really was a first, as these are two bodies that don’t often see eye to eye and have a history of conflict rather than co-operation. Getting the same advice from both is a welcome departure; getting it on so contentious a subject is little short of a miracle”.

Though the author rather overstates our organisations’ differences (we regularly work together and get on very nicely, actually), they touched on a very serious point: if we’re going to respond effectively to climate change as a society and a species, we need to coordinate and mobilise – across sectors, places, parties, communities, organisations and governments.

Existential threat

Properly resourced and managed, planning provides many of the tools we need to put into place and coordinate many of the enormous physical changes the IPCC calls for. But this level of coordination also requires sheer political will. My mention of the TCPA above is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, but pulling together is the least we can do in the face of an existential threat.

The fact that one fifth of respondents to our 2017 membership survey listed climate change as a priority for the RTPI, and that the RTPI-TCPA ‘miracle’ did happen are positive signs. That only three of the national newspapers splashed the IPCC report on their covers on the day of its publication, and the silence of the party leaders on the subject subsequently, are certainly not.

As planners, we have a responsibility to make the case for the radical changes needed across society, not just within our day-to-day work or our sector.

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