Alec Tang considers how breaking down siloed thinking and embracing cross-cutting systems thinking is essential in meeting our challenges.
There is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” This is the stark warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Synthesis Report, produced for the panel’s sixth assessment cycle.
It goes on to reiterate that “…deep, rapid and sustained mitigation and accelerated implementation of adaptation actions in this decade would reduce future losses and damages related to climate change for humans and ecosystems…” and that “…urban systems are critical for achieving deep emissions reductions and advancing climate-resilient development”.
The good news is that there are already a broad range of interventions that can deliver ‘deep, rapid and sustained’ emissions cuts in our urban systems – from low-carbon and active transport to renewable, decentralised energy networks and healthier, more energy-efficient building designs.
The underpinning bases for more resilient and adaptive communities are also increasingly well understood, from the use of nature-based/green infrastructure solutions and the integration of climate risks into urban planning to active investment in community and social cohesion. Many of these opportunities are explored further in IEMA’s guidance on decarbonising local development plans.
Not what but how
The challenge is not what we need to do but how we deliver this transition, particularly where transition exacerbates existing inequalities.
For example, the transition to lower-carbon transport – shifting to electric vehicles, public and active transport modes – needs to be done in a way that recognises that many in our communities are currently locked into forced car ownership and dependency on fossil-fuel vehicles. This can stem from lack of finance to invest in new, lower-carbon vehicles, or a need to work in locations and at times that are not well served by existing public transport systems or active mode infrastructure.
Doing nothing to support an equitable transport transition will simply leave already disadvantaged groups locked into fossil-fuel vehicles that will become increasingly expensive to maintain and operate. This further compounds the inequities that have been preventing their transition in the first place.
These same issues of equity are found in our energy systems, with low-carbon decentralised systems and their long-term carbon, cost and wellbeing benefits remaining within the domain of those who can afford the upfront investment and whose homes are in spaces that can maximise renewable energy generation.
They are seen in our food systems, where the cheapest food is often the least healthy for people and the planet. They are seen in our housing system, where improvements to address the health, efficiency and accessibility of our homes are least accessible to those that most need it.
The solutions lie in tackling systems in their entirety and seeking transformation across traditionally siloed domains. This is particularly true in urban environments, where our linear thinking has driven us to compartmentalise our city systems. This has been further reinforced by the setup of local administrations, where parks departments sit distinct from stormwater management and flood protection, transport services are isolated from public health, and waste services are largely a logistics operation, rather than an opportunity to educate and redesign our systems of excess.
We will only deliver a low-carbon, equitable transport system if we look at the integrated planning of our land use, bringing amenities like childcare and food provision closer to the people when and where they need them most.
We can only deliver resilient urban environments if we consider the opportunity for localised food production as part of the green space provision that is critical for managing climate-related risks; providing spaces for people to connect and supporting their physical and mental wellbeing. These green spaces can also provide excellent active mode connector routes away from traffic.
We will only realise the opportunities for localised renewable energy to address emissions reduction, resilience, health and energy hardship if we couple it with systems that can share energy within our communities and provide accessible mechanisms for releasing the upfront investment required to install these solutions.
Alec Tang, FIEMA CENV, is a member of the steering group for IEMA's Climate Change and Energy Network