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Preventing climate change: the crucial role of planning

16 December 2015 Author:

Storm Desmond has made headlines over the past week, having brought exceptionally heavy rainfall to much of northern England, southern Scotland and north Wales, and causing record-breaking flooding in places. The Met Office’s Chief Scientist Dame Julia Slingo warned that “all the evidence” suggests climate change played a role in the floods, as last month, the Met Office published a report showing that for the same weather pattern, an extended period of extreme UK winter rainfall is now seven times more likely than in a world without human emissions of greenhouse gases. This suggests that next to the very important role of flood management, we need to look at the wider factors of climate change and how planning can contribute to tackle these (something I’ll come back to later).

Desmond struck a few days after the beginning of the United Nations (UN) COP21 conference on climate change in Paris on November 30th. The Paris COP21 agreement, signed on Saturday and to be implemented by 2020, was hailed as “durable and ambitious”. Key elements from the agreement include to keep global temperatures "well below" 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and "endeavour to limit" them even more, to 1.5C; to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100, with regular reviews to ensure these commitments can be increased in line with scientific advice. Scientists largely agree that heating beyond that two-degree threshold would equate to catastrophic climate change, such as more frequent droughts and higher sea-level rise. 


A report published by the UN last month, The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters, shows that over the last twenty years, 90% of major disasters have been caused by 6,457 recorded floods, storms, heatwaves, droughts and other weather-related events. Climate change has economic costs – the United Nations Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) estimates that the true figure on disaster losses – including earthquakes and tsunamis – is between US$250 billion and US$300 billion annually. Storm Desmond has caused an estimated £500m of damage across Cumbria – almost double the cost of the floods that hit parts of the county six years ago. There are also numerous social costs including the fact that climate change is one of the biggest health threat facing our societies –something outlined in further detail in our Promoting Healthy Cities report published last year.

Climate change is a complex issue - many actors are involved in making decisions and changing pathways. So, what role is there for planning? Climate change, like planning, requires us to take a long-term (and spatial) view. Future Proofing Society, a research report published for the RTPI’s Centenary last year, argues that the challenge of climate change is so significant and long-term in nature that it will require widespread and fundamental changes in the way our societies are organised and managed. On its own, planning can't resolve this challenge, but its scale and scope emphasises why urban and rural planning is such a crucial part of the solution.

One of the key challenges is to reconcile this long-term view and future risks with the short-term mandates of politicians, including the pressing needs of creating jobs, and housing in their communities and the growth which will help support health and education. This is an enduring challenge at local, national and global level. However, investments in sustainable transport and housing that are critical for low-carbon futures and for inclusive development are also essential inputs into economic growth. 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.”

Future-Proofing Society focuses on three aspects of climate change - extreme weather, water provision and energy supply and suggests ways that policy- and decision-makers more broadly can make our societies more resilient to help 'future-proof' our societies for the twenty-first century. This will require much greater attention to how we organise and use land, how we transport ourselves, how we live and work in communities, how we generate and distribute energy, and how we use water – all in a coherent and coordinated way.

For instance, as shown in an RTPI research briefing on urban form and sustainability, dispersed settlements typically result in higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption than compact settlements. This is attributable to increased car-dependency and energy consumption associated with low-density housing, coupled with the increased embodied energy during infrastructure provision. Dispersed settlements may also cover land with value for future climate adaptation, such as green spaces which mitigate against flood risk. The climate change resource page on our website outlines more on what the RTPI is doing in relation to that topic.

Especially, the role of cities in relation to climate change will be central. Cities around the world are particularly vulnerable to climate-driven disasters and also attract many of those displaced by climate change. For instance, in Nairobi, Kenya, the Kibera informal settlement is hosting a large number of climate migrants. According to the UN, the number of people displaced by climate change in Nairobi has increased from 26% to 74% as part of the population in 20 years. Cities produce three quarters of the world’s greenhouse emissions.

Chennai India

Chennai, India, which was hit by severe flooding in the past few weeks. Photo credit: Flickr/McKay Savage

However, cities can also play a decisive role in mitigation and adaptation. In 2009 Copenhagen set a target to become CO2 neutral by 2025, which would make it the first large carbon-neutral city in the world. The city hopes to achieve this through transition of energy supply to buildings, waste management and public infrastructure. Launched at the 2014 UN Climate Summit, the Compact of Mayors is a global coalition of mayors and city officials pledging to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, enhance resilience to climate change, and track their progress transparently. While the actors around the table at COP21 are mostly national governments, city mayors, but also civil society and the private sector all have a role to play, as well as practitioners on the ground, including planners.

Crucially, the international consensus on climate mitigation and adaptation at COP 21 will be key on the road to Habitat III. Habitat III, which is organised by UN Habitat and will take place in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016, will chart a new course to ensure that our cities meet the demands of the 21st century. The issue of climate change ties in with many of the 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals, including to achieve sustainable cities and communities, to protect the planet, clean energy to quote a few.

To achieve this we will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle other risk drivers such as unplanned urban development, environmental degradation, among other factors. Planning can play a crucial role in this. The increasing occurrence of severe climate-change related weather events such as Storm Desmond is just a reminder of the urgency of this issue.