Climate Conference Season Starts

You know it must be Spring when the conference season starts. Both the World Bank's Urban Research Symposium and ICLEI's World Congress are now open for registration. The symposium will be held in Marseille, France, June 28 - 30 on the theme of "Cities and Climate Change: Responding to an Urgent Agenda."

The program (pdf) promises a blistering two day tour covering urban climate change from pretty much every conceivable angle. I'll be attending both conferences. If you are going to be there as well, let me know. (more info after the jump)
The Symposium's five key clusters are :
  • Science and Indicators of Climate Change and Related Impacts: Understanding and measuring how cities impact, and are impacted by, climate change.
  • Infrastructure, Built Environment, and Energy Efficiency: Planning efficiently and effectively to increase the resilience of cities.
  • The Role of Institutions, Governance, and Urban Planning: Improving management, coordination, and planning of cities to meet climate change challenges.
  • Incentive policies, economics and finance: Understanding how and why cities respond to climate change.
  • Social aspects of climate change: Understanding and reducing vulnerability of urban populations to climate change.
Notables include the Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an impressive number of sidepanels on everything from governance, to green buildings, energy efficiency and sea level rise. The WB's Jean-Jacques Helluin wrote to ask me to mention that seats (and hotel rooms) are filling up. Register here.

The ICLEI congress runs from June 14-18 in Edmonton, Canada. (Just a few kilometres from the infamous tar sands explorations) The draft program is now up(pdf) and registration for the event closes on April 15th. The schedule includes a talk by David Suzuki, and sessions structured ICLEI's six global scenarios:
  • Welcome to the Urban Revolution
  • From Cradle to Cradle – The Global Material and Product Cycle
  • Demography and Health
  • Climate Change and Natural Resources
  • Energy
  • Financial Crisis = Ecological Crisis? The Future of Financing Local Sustainability
ICLEI conferences always provide a forum for cities to experience their successes and setbacks. It's interesting to see what seems to be a new focus on the need for more fundamental and far reaching change. Given the multiple interlocking crisis covered in the scenarios though, it's not hard to see why. Some of the more ambitious sessions and include:

"Faster and More Radical: Visionary Solutions for Eco-efficient, Resilient and Just Communities"


"Peak Everything – Let’s Face it All"
Register here.


Google Mapping Climate Responses: Crowds vs. Complexity

I'm getting close to the end of two months of research here in South Africa. I head out next Wednesday, and I will miss the fantastic people I have learnt from while I've been here. Looking back over the past two months, three interlinked issues have come up again and again:
  • the limited capacity of local and national government to manage climate change initiatives,
  • the huge communication barriers that separate possible collaborators,
  • and the difficulty of getting an overall picture of what is going on because of the sheer variety of work both inside and outside of government channels.
I suspect the situation is the same regardless of whether you are on the coast of the Indian Ocean or on the shores of the Great Lakes. Google map hacks are one possible way for us to get a handle on these challenges.

DEAT (the South African national environmental agency) has decided to use a collaborative Google map platform (the NCCRD) to make this complex situation easier to navigate. The site has been up and running for a bit less than a month, so these are still early days. All the same, I am excited by the possibilities. There are various shades of sustainability mapping out there (see links below), but to my knowledge this is the first one set up by a national government.

The agency has recognized that they don't have the ability to monitor and report on all the current climate change related projects. Instead, following web 2.0 principles that have made sites like Wikipedia such a success, they've designed a setup that allows users to log their own adaptation, mitigation or research projects. All of these are mapped out across the country, and the aggregated data is used to automatically generate an impressive array of constantly updated reports. They cover anything from the total level of ghg reductions to the distribution of research across different sectors. ( A short registration is required to access the full system)

In return for providing their information, project managers get to network with each other, publicize their work and advertise projects in need of funding. It is totally dependant on a mixture of a desire for recognition, the need to secure project partners and the appeal of professional networking. But if we've seen anything on the internet over the past few years, it's been that when you provide a good platform for people to generate content, they deliver.

By its nature, climate change exceeds the bounds of what our established systems can do. It's a slippery cross-cutting problem that doesn't sit well within the responsibilities of any one agency or government office. It's also inspired a whole variety of independent projects carried out by NGOs, community groups and private companies. In that kind of situation, embracing wiki-style collaborative information sharing more than makes sense; it may be the only way to go. The resources that you would need to track all these projects from one central point would be huge. In the early stages, centralized monitoring is also likely to be beyond the reach of state agencies already struggling with limited resources.

The quality of data is clearly going to be a concern. At the launch of the NCCRD, the team pointed out that a project they had yet to locate was skewing results so badly that South Africa appeared to be offsetting the entire world's annual emissions!

Glaring errors like that are easy to spot. But users themselves can ensure a deeper level of quality control by flagging projects they know to have been cancelled, or commenting on the current status of initiatives that they have been following. If you have ever started a new entry on Wikipedia, you know how gruelling this kind of community editorial control can be.

My one criticism is that the NCCRD team has only gone half way with the web 2.0 approach. As it stands, there is no interface that allows users to comment on projects that appear in the database. So while they have harnessed the crowd to provide information, they have cut it off from being able to help keep it current and reliable. I mentioned this to Lisa Constable (of ERM) at the launch, and Lisa if you are reading I'd love to know what your thoughts are a month down the line.

I will be watching how the databases evolves. It's a tool that can serve cities just as well as countries. And it could also very well be the way we collectively manage a problem whose scope is pushing us to find new ways of knowing and organizing both ourselves and our understanding of the world.


This is a short list of some other mapping projects that I particularly like. (thxs to for a few of these): provides a standardized suite of google map tools and icons for community based sustainability mapping.

David Tryse has an excellent collection of Google Earth rederings of various environmental disruptions.

Urban Edibles is a collaborative map of guerilla food gardening in Ghent (Belgium), put together by the U.S. Environmental Defence Fund provides an interactive map of companies that will be helped by climate legislation. (see )


Who's got time for Earth Hour?

Earth Hour: this Saturday between 8:30 and 9:30pm people all over the world are going to be turning off their lights to show their support for climate change action. London, Rome, Dubai, Montreal and over 2,000 other cities have signed up. Along with the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, celebrity supporters include Edward Norton, Alanis Morissette and...The Backstreet Boys. But you'd be forgiven if you weren't convinced about the whole thing.

The event definitely suffers from a bit from the “Bono effect”; with all these celebrities hovering around, it's a bit hard to take it seriously. Then there is the issue of how much power the event will even save? These criticisms have been levelled at the event since it started in Sydney two years ago. But focusing on them misses the real point of Earth Hour (see today's NYT for example). It isn't about saving an hour's worth of electricity, or bringing attention to the amount of energy that our skylines consume, or about giving us a chance to see the stars. The point of Earth Hour is to create a world wide show of support for action on climate change. Right now, that's probably just what we need.

In the lead up to the climate negotiations in Copenhagen – which will define the international approach to climate change for years to come – WWF is capitalizing on this aspect. For the first time, Earth Hour has become what organizers are calling “the world’s first global election, between Earth and global warming.” They are aiming to recruit 1billion people to “vote earth” by switching off. Now again, if this all seems a bit breathless to you, you're not alone.

But consider where we are: the past two rounds of climate negotiations have failed to produce any real progress. Major players like the US, China, and Canada have been blocking calls for binding targets. And many politicians still seem to feel that the political costs of putting in place real climate change policies are too high. All of this while a steady stream of new scientific studies are confirming that we are on track to go beyond even the worst case scenarios that we were discussing a few years ago:

Emissions are rising 2.5 times faster than we thought and unexpectedly fast melting of the Greenland ice sheet is pushing us toward between 1m and 2m of sea level rise by the end of the century.
A major demonstration of international support is just what we need to show that the real costs (political, economic and environmental) come from not acting.

We've been told a bit of a lie about climate change, and that is that our main role as individuals is to reduce our personal consumption. It's true to an extent. If you've changed your bulbs or traded in your car for a bus pass you've helped shave off a few tons from our global emissions.

But we are more than lonley consumers. Amongst other things we are citizens. Mobilizing our political representatives to get serious about climate change is the most important thing that we can do at this point. There are going to be trade-offs along the road to dealing with climate change, and they aren't things that we as individuals are going to be able to balance on our own.

So sign up, turn off your lights on Saturday, and while you're at it write a letter to your political representatives. It doesn't have to be anything long – just a few words to let them know that you've done your part. Now it's time that they do theirs.

[Find your Canadian member of Parliament or US House Representative ]


Wake Up, Freak out - Then Get a Grip

Leo Murray's "Wake Up, Freak out - then Get a Grip" is a great animated introduction to climate change. If you need a refresher, or an introduction, to feedback loops that could push us toward a climate tipping point, I definitely recommend it. The hook is that from these scientific beginnings Murray builds a larger critique of what got us here, and where we could end up. The last few minutes are a tough watch and remarkably powerful - especially for stick men
Wake Up, Freak Out - then Get a Grip from Leo Murray on Vimeo. [thanks urbansprouts]

UPDATE 23/03/09: After a few offline conversations I felt a short update to this post was in order. This time last year I'm not sure if I would have linked to this video. Apocalyptic visions can be very disempowering and as much as I like the animation (which I think is really well done) it stops well short of giving us anything positive to work with.

But a lot has changed in the past twelve months. The better we understand climate change, the worse things are looking. If the conclusions of the animation seem far fetched, I'd recommend these posts on advances in climate science, climate refugees and drought . For what cities can do see: urban agriculture, sustainable planning, retrofitting, alternative energy and the living city challenge. Read more...

Sustainability 2.0: A Living City Challenge

Sustainability has been a feel-good project for most of its public life. But as our worst case climate change scenarios keep getting worse, the eco-limelight is taking on a darker shade of green. has posted on the need for cities to get serious about their climate commitments. It's time, they argue, to let go of the “sustainability light” of high profile press releases and iconic sustainability projects like tree planting. We need to address the problems at hand, not some Disneyfied remake.

I think we are going to hear this call to action repeated more and more often. So what would things look like if we did take that extra step, past greenwash to a deeper commitment to urban sustainability?

Buildings, for example, account for 38% of carbon emissions in the US, and a similar proportion in Canada. The LEED building certification system has been key in getting eco-intelligent design onto North American streets, and inspired similar systems around the world. But what's next? Accessing the old stock. The majority of high performance buildings so far have been new builds; Portland's plans for city wide energy retrofits show one way that we could step up our game.

Citiwire critiques some of the specifics on the LEED checklist. But in my own work, people are pointing checklists themselves might be insufficient. Give people a checklist and inevitably they focus on the criteria -- not the underlying goal that they are trying to achieve. Result? The focus becomes certification, not sustainability. Proposing an alternative, Cascadia's Living Building Challenge turns the process on its head. Put a truly ambitious goal front and centre and provide a path that guides individual developers as they figure out how to meet it.

The Living Building Challenge:

“Imagine a building informed by its eco-region’s characteristics and that:
  • generates all of its own energy with renewable resources
  • captures and treats all of its water
  • operates efficiently and for maximum beauty”

Now that would be a truly sustainable building!

Similar ambitious moves can happen in all sectors of our cities. LEED style checklists provide essential guidance. But the Living Building Challenge is a great model for one key reason: It recognizes that people respond well to challenges if you inspire them to do something really remarkable.

So far, we've tried to sell sustainability by telling people it will help them get what they already want: cost savings, security from volatility, quality of life, and economic development. That's a cop out though, and a fatally dull one. Trying to convince people that they just need to marginally change their approach to the same old targets is only going to get us so far. Synergies between climate change policies and development goals may open a door, but we need to step through it and inspire people to take more ambitious action.

A Living City Challenge

As Citiwire concludes: “We know what works.

So why isn't it happening? The article focuses on a few key administrative barriers and a call for more rigour in municipal efforts. But rigour takes commitment and that takes a real belief that there is something worth working toward. Ultimately its not regulations that make things happen, its people. To make change at that level we need a strong vision of what we are aiming for, something that will seduce and inspire people into reconsidering some of their fundamental assumptions.

We need a Living City Challenge.

Imagine Cities that could:
  • play a beneficially role in their local ecosystems
  • generate all their own energy from renewable resources
  • produce the majority of their own food
  • operate both efficiently and with maximum livability and equity
There are plenty of technical guides out there already. The idea here is to come up with a few ambitious goals (4 or 5 at the very most) that can guide creativity and innovation toward something fundamentally more sustainable than the tweaking we have seen so far. What would you include?

[image modified from LBC]

P(iled)h(igher)& D(eeper) does Sustainability

A fitting end to a week centered around children's' books and comics, PhD Comics (everyone's favourite parody of gradschool life) has taken on "Sustainabilty." And where else but the University of British Columbia, my home institution, and featuring a colleague of mine! (thanks to Lunatrix for sending the link). XKCD (another of my favourites) is also running from a sustainability theme.

The tongue-in-cheek humour vs. impending global meltdown seemed doubly appropriate given that a friend recently referred to me as "a happy version of one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse." I'm not sure how to take that -- but I blame science. It's been impossible to ignore the past month's storm of worrying new scientific reports - see most recently the conclusions of the IARU congress in Copenhagen. But to show that you can always take your doom-and-gloom with a pinch of humour (and a can of beans) ......[click to enlarge]


Urban Biodiversity y el Cambio Chromatico

Ramón, whose strip Hipo Popo Pota & T@mo runs in Spain's El Pais newspaper, is one of my favourite editorial cartoonists. Through the lives of two precocious hippos, and a cast of other animals, the strip carries a running commentary on current politics as it relates to the environmental crisis we seem intent on digging ourselves into.

This past week, the strip has begun dealing with the impacts that climate change is going to have on biodiversity. For readers who don't read Spanish, I've translated the first strip in the series after the jump (the original is here).

The strip usually runs in full colour, and I have done my best to translate the wonderful play on words that switches "cambio climatico" (climate change) for "cambio chromatico" (chromatic change). As climate change decimates biodiversity, the world is going grey.

Ramón is drawing attention to an alarming situation: plants and animals may be going extinct faster now than at any other time in the planet's history. Factor in the effects of climate change and by some estimates between one third and half of all current species will be extinct by the end of this century.

If you live and work in a city, it's not obvious how cities can help make a difference on this issue. But cities are natural spaces; they are part of local and regional ecosystems. Managed with these connections in mind, they can play an important role in helping plants, animals and humans to adapt to climate change.

In the past, migration was the main way that plants and animals coped with changing conditions. If it got to hot or dry where you were, you went somewhere else. Currently, swaths of urbanized and industrialised land can make migration impossible. Even if there is more habitat available elsewhere, urbanized land acts as a moat cutting off access. But cities can act to address this situation.

Living in Durban, South Africa, I have been in the middle of a biodiversity hot spot with more than 6 thousand species of plants and animals. Here, the municipality's Environmental Management Department oversees a vast system of parks and open spaces. Like a network of green highways, this land provides corridors through which plants and animals can move giving them the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. Where the network is interrupted, the department has been working with private land owners to encourage the planting of indigenous plants that effectively extend the network of wildlife corridors. In a Canadian context, the town of Canmore on the outskirts of Banff national park is trying to strike a similar balance.

Last September Durban-- along with a total of 20 other cities including Paris, Amsterdam, Bonn, Seoul, Seattle, Edmonton and Barcelona -- established the Durban Commitment on biodiversity. Each city committed to monitoring, protecting and raising awareness about biodiversity in their area.

The idea that cities can have a role in preserving biodiversity is hard for some people to wrap their heads around. In Portland (OR) Mike Houck (founder of the Audubon Society's Urban Naturalist Program, and executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute) has devoted his career to preserving urban ecosystems. When I spoke with him earlier this year, he described how difficult it was to get people to see that there was such a thing as nature in the city. Both traditional environmentalists and municipal officials thought that nature was something best protected outside, not inside, urban areas.

Recently that view has started to change. Both municipal officials and residents are coming alive to the value of protecting wildlife habitat, wetlands, rivers and streams. A healthy local ecosystem can have immediate benefits for the city's human inhabitants. Green spaces increase air quality, reduce the sweltering summer heat and make cities more livable. Functioning river and wetland systems offer natural storm water remediation and water purification systems that would cost cities millions if cities had to build them themselves.

Just after the economic crisis hit last fall, an EU-commissioned study used this financial view of biodiversity to compare the two crisis. While the Wall St. had lost $1.5 trillion, they calculated that we are loosing $2-$5 trillion of natural capital every year. While major national and international responses are required, cities also have a role to play in protecting biodiversity.

(If that's too much to think about on a Friday afternoon, more comix are linked to in the openalex footer).

Urbanization and Drought: West Coast, USA

Reuters has an excellent article on the impact that water shortages and floods are going to have on the US West Coast. The region is both the hardest hit by water shortages and the home of the three fastest growing states in the US: Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. The obvious problems that this creates are only predicted to grow worse. As well as providing an overview of the crisis, the article explores the competing proposed responses: dams, desalination, and demand management. The only thing it overlooks is the likely impact on internal migration. Some highlights after the jump.

The U.S. Climate Change Science Program sees the entire West on average getting less precipitation, but there is plenty of debate about that. There is a consensus, however, that most of today's snow will turn in coming decades to rain, often in the form of blinding thunderstorms early in the year, when it is needed least.


California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency last month, and Los Angeles plans to ration water for the first time in 15 years. Courts are limiting the amount of water taken from into rivers to save decimated fish populations, which is cutting back even more to farms


California farmers lost more than $300 million in 2008 and economic losses may accelerate to 10 times that this year as 95,000 people lose their jobs. Farmers will get zero water from the main federal supplier.


A study put the price of new dams at up to $1,400 per acre foot. Current supplies cost about $700 for one acre foot -- a year's supply for two houses. Urban water conservation costs $210, local stormwater $350 and desalination of ocean water or contaminated groundwater about $750 to $1,200 an acre foot.

The NRDC estimates that California could get 7 million acre feet per year from conservation, groundwater cleanup and stormwater harvesting.

Even energy-intensive desalination is cheaper than dams, the group argues. "People always used to think that desal was the lunatic fringe of water supply. (Now) desal is the mainstream, and dams are exiting the mainstream," said policy analyst Barry Nelson.


Seuss-tainability: The Lorax Was Wrong

Edward Glaeser, economics professor at Harvard, has posted on cities and sustainability -- via Dr. Seuss -- over at the NYT's Economix blog. The conceit of the entry is that Suess was wrong. While his story The Lorax contains some valuable environmental and economic lessons it misses the mark on cities.

Unlike the evil industrial metropolis in Suess' book, Glaeser present some powerful data comparing the energy use of urbanites and suburbanites.

For those familiar with the link between density and efficiency, you will be happy to have some solid figures to refer to for a few major US cities. But in making his point, Glaser too misses the mark when he describes the nature of cities.

The results of a study ran by Glaser and Matthew Kahn, a U.C.L.A. environmental economist, are interesting:
In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data.
Cities, as some of us have known for a while, are pretty green -- at least when it comes to transit rerlated energy efficiency. So far so good. But there is another flaw in The Lorax: the idea that all cities have to be Dickensian industrial nightmares cut off from from nature.
While Glaser celebrates the efficiency of cities, he maintains the cold hostile vision of cities that drives people to look for a cabin in the woods (or at least a lawn in the suburbs):
Living surrounded by concrete is actually pretty green. Living surrounded by trees is not. ... if you want to take good care of the environment, stay away from it and live in cities.

All I can say is that I am glad he's not an urban planner! To be fare, there are cities that embody this image of endless streets of cold dense concrete. Nothing could seem more "un natural."

But the city/nature distinction is an old one, and one that we really need to let go of. Urban agriculture, rain water harvesting, natural storm water remediation, parks, green spaces, even decentralized solar and wind power– all these things are examples of the types of projects that we end up with when we recognize the many natural systems that cities are inextricably linked to.

More and more cities are capitalizing on their links to the natural systems that surround them. Not only does this make them more efficient and more resilient, it also makes them more enjoyable places to live. Good thing too, because "grey, drab, ...but efficient!" isn't a slogan that is going to garner much support for new dense developments.

Women and Climate

Yesterday was International Women's Day. Because of the disproportionate number of women living in poverty, and the role they play as caregivers, agriculturalists and energy providers women in many countries will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change. At the same time, in my research in Vancouver, Portland (OR), Durban and Cape Town (South Africa) almost without exception the most committed, insightful, and effective climate leaders have been women.

They have carved out a place for climate change, and won allies within municipalities that are often initially very hostile to changing the way they do business. I wanted in some small way to celebrate their accomplishments and draw attention to the unequal burdern that a changing climate willplace on women.

  • 70% of the world’s poor are women. These women are more likely to suffer as a consequence of climate change.
  • 85% of the people who die in climate-induced natural disasters are women.
  • 75% of environmental refugees are women.
  • Women are also more likely to be the unseen victims of resource wars and violence as a result of climate change.
  • Climate change is predicted to reduce crop yields and food production in some regions, particularly the tropics. Women are responsible for 70–80 percent of household food production in sub-Saharan Africa, 65 percent in Asia, and 45 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. They achieve this despite unequal access to land, information, and inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizer.
  • Climate change may exacerbate existing shortages of water. Women, largely responsible for water collection in their communities, are more sensitive to the changes in seasons and climatic conditions that affect water quantity and accessibility that make its collection even more time-consuming.
(sources: CIDA ; Women's Manifesto on CC )

These figures are about more than vulnerability. They show the crucial nature of women's contributions to our current world and emphasize how important it is for climate policies to engage directly with women a partners, decision makers and leaders. They are already central to community survival and will be the linch-pin of successful responses to climate change. Across all levels of economic development, their contributions are helping us to find a better place for ourselves and our cities in the future.

Happy International Women's Day!


Rural Renewables vs. Urban Slums

How do you stem the flood of people migrating into informal settlements around the world's cities? Electrify the countryside.
People migrate to cities because they provide hope of accessing services and resources unavailable in rural areas. Easier access to energy, and electricity in particular, is a major draw. For many, this is a loosing situation.

Living conditions in informal settlements are often poor, municipalities struggle under the burden of providing basic services to settlements that are inherently difficult to service, and conflict inevitable erupts over illegal hook-ups to the electricity grid. Inhabitants are stuck between living in these conditions, or returning to rural areas where energy poverty deprives them of the ability to make a living. Community based rural renewable energy systems may be a way out of this catch-22.

Speaking at a South African Climate Summit session on energy poverty, Siziwe Khaniyile (from national green NGO Groundwork) discussed how renewable energy systems can provided rural communities with increased social and economic opportunities and provided alternatives to informal urban settlements. For those of us with reliable access to electricity it is easy to take for granted the economic mobility and independence that it creates. Imagine studying by candle light, or sewing piece work by hand and you get a quick reminder of the benefits electricity brings.

World energy use has quadrupled since 1950, but access to energy has remained very unequal. In South Africa -- a country that is home to one of the biggest electricity utilities in the world -- that translated into 2.5million households that are still without electricity. "Exploring Energy Poverty In South Africa", a report launched at the session, discusses these issues in more detail.
The report rightly points out that feed-in tariffs do nothing to encourage renewables in areas not connected to the grid. It proposes a new focus on supplying decentralized and when possible community managed biomass, solar, biogas and run of river energy projects to rural communities.

Another interesting facet of the report is a comparison of number of jobs created by different energy technologies. Coal results in 700 jobs / TWh of electricity generated; nuclear, 70; solar hot water, 8 733; and biodiesel, 16 318. From an efficiency point of view you might argue that the fewer people engaged in producing energy the better. But in a country with 21.9% unemployment (and over 60% in some communities), sources of meaningful employment are valuable in and of themselves.

Cities at the Climate Summit

As the summit came to a close, it was clear that cities have played a big role in moving action on climate change forward in South Africa. In the three years since the last summit, city-led initiatives have kept the momentum up on climate change. But it is also clear that links between municipal and national efforts are not taken seriously, and that cities need to put more effort into presenting a unified front at these kinds of events.

Some of the most innovative national initiatives discussed at the summit follow directly in municipal footsteps:

A national South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas (SARVA) is in the works that will provide regional and local decision makers with the best available information on the impacts that climate change will have on their areas. Bringing the massive global climate models down to a scale that is usable to local decisions makers (downscaling) is an arduous task. The SARVA is an almost uncanny echo of the work that the city of Durban has been doing to produce a user friendly database of climate impacts to inform municipal decision making. Not all municipalities have Durban's resources though, so once the SARVA is complete it will deliver a key tool to many other municipalities.

The recently announced feed-in tariff for renewable energy also got a lot of attention at the conference. The announcement follows over a year of research in municipality of Nelson Mandela Bay (NMBM). A small-scale pilot project there has been testing the feasibility of decentralized generation and the appropriate level for a feed-in tariff to effectively promote renewable energy. South Africa has the world's cheapest electricity (half the price of Canada, it's closest competitor). It comes almost entirely from coal-fired plants, which makes ESKOM (the national electricity utility) one of the largest single ghg emitters in the world. In that context, getting the tariff right is crucial. The current feed-in tariff of 66 c/kWh has been criticized for being too low. National and international renewable energy companies, as well as the municipality, have pegged the appropriate level closer to R1 or R1.5 (12-19 cents CDN).

Unfortunately, key national and municipal figures didn't seem to take the links between municipal and national efforts seriously. Municipalities are key partners in creating and implementing national responses to climate change. But this was only grudgingly accepted by some at the summit. The sections of the conference statement dealing with municipalities were in fact remouved late in the week, and only re-included thanks to a last minute effort by municipal representatives. On the other hand, the presence of the South African Local Governments Association (SALGA) was very limited. Most of the key municipal contributions where made by individual municipal employees, and many complained that there was not adequate support for coordinated learning and lobbying by cities.

You see the same situation play out at international climate change negotiations. Little has been done to engage with the role that cities will play both in reducing emissions, and preventing and responding to climate related disasters. The onus to some extent lies with municipal associations like ICLEI, the C40 and SALGA to make sure that municipal concerns are adequately represented at national and international negotiations.

At the same time, national governments have to be ready to take cities seriously. If we are going to do this, national governments need to provide cities with adequate financial resources, support local capacity building, and help re-write regulations that fetter cities abilities to respond informatively to climate change. For their part, cities need to move past boosterist celebrations of one-off "green" projects and begin to make serious attempts to integrate Climate Change into they operate and make decisions. Both sides need to show that they take each other -- and the climate challenge -- seriously.


South African Climate Summit (+ Obama)

I am currently in South Africa, at the national Climate Change Summit in Midrand, outside of Johannesburg. The purpose of the summit is to make sure that government, business and NGOs are up to speed on the international scientific and political context for climate change, and to help develop the national position that South Africa will bring to the table this December in Copenhagen. My eyes are primarily on the space that local governments care out for themselves in this process. But I may post on the more general context as well.

One thing that's become clear is that the profile of climate change in South Africa has risen considerable since they last held a summit three years ago. President Motlanthe gave the opening address, and I am told that it is the first time that a South African president has dedicated a full speech to climate change at this kind of forum. The other thing that's clear is that Obama's “Yes We Can” approach really has spread around the globe.

Even in the early days of his bid for the U.S. presidency there was a lot of excitement here about the possibility of having a black man in the White House. Now, his promotion of green jobs as the way to jumpstart the economy is on everyone's lips, from the President to high level Ministers. Obama wasn't the first to come up with these ideas. But as a political figure he has shown that a strong stance on environmental issues can be a source of political capital, rather than a political risk.

South Africa's energy utilities are some of the largest single Co2 emitters in the world, and its economy is completely (and I mean completely) dependent on cheap coal-fired electricity. It is also a major regional and continental leader. Despite considerable capacity problems at all levels of government, it is pushing for feed-in tariffs, green building policies, 10%-15% energy savings from households and businesses (prompted by a national energy supply crisis, but also relevant to CC initiatives) and binding policy to cap emissions by 2020-5.

They have yet to really get serious about renewable energy. But if they deliver on this, and the other issues that are being discussed, they could have a huge impact on the way in which climate change is addressed in Africa. Like many other countries -- developed or developing -- they also have a history of creating ambitious policy, but not following through. Obviously, we are all hoping that South Africa will see that there are real benefits to acting on climate change, not just talking about it.


Berkeley Alternative Solar Financing Pays Out

It's been a little while in the works, but Berkeley (CA)'s innovative solar financing plan is celebrating the completion of its first two residential installations. Many energy efficiency and small scale renewables face the same hurdles: high up front cost, long payback periods, and the chance that the owner might not recoup their investment when they sell their property.

Seeing a possible solution, in October of 2007 Berkley began discussing in place the framework for an alternative financing system. Instead of paying for the installations up front, homeowners repay a long term loans through a 20 year reassessments of their property taxes. The interest rate on the bond-secured loans is low, and when the house is sold the next owner simply takes over the reassessment as part of their property taxes. Its seems so obvious... now that someone else has done it.

Since 2007 a few things have changed. Most notable new tax breaks announced in the Federal stimulus package that complement other subsidies already available from utility companies:
On a typical $22,000 solar system, homeowners would pay about $180 a month on their property taxes. But the amount is reduced when factoring in PG&E rebates, which range from $2,000 to $15,000, plus a federal tax credit that allows homeowners to deduct 30 percent of the cost of the solar system from the overall amount of tax they owe.
The other change is that instead of the municipality holding the bag for the loans, the money comes from bonds sold by a private financing company (something that took a little time to find). The municipality simply acts as a broker. The city expects the rest of the first 40 installations to be complete within a few months. The second round of the program will begin later this year. Berkeley is also considering using a similar arrangement to help homeowners pay for other energy efficiency renovations. In terms of job creation, the San Francisco Chronical reports that local solar contractors are on "hiring binges."

In essence this type of program runs as a form of self-taxation, albeit one that the city makes as painless as possible. It will be interesting to see how Berkley's plan measures up to similar efforts, like those of the Portland Clean Energy Fund, that are instead paid for directly through energy-cost savings. Also, in terms of actual reductions in energy use, I would love to see a good comparison between these two projects. Solar PV is an expensive technology and the components themselves take a lot of energy to manufacture. Efficiency retrofits (the focus of Portland's program) are relatively inexpensive and use materials that contain less vested energy.

At this point, both cities have in effect found creative ways to extend the policy ladder, and they are once again picking the low-hanging fruit. The real test will come in a year or so. By then the initial wave of enthusiastic early adopters will have passed and we will be able to see how ready residents are to get behind these kinds of innitiatives. Still, my sense is that it is these kinds of financial arragments, more than any technological breakthrough, that will lead to the real transformation of how urbanites use and produce energy.


In a speech last Friday, Portland Mayor Sam Adams announced the beginning of wholesale efficiency retrofitting for residential neighbourhoods across the city. Beginning with a 500 home pilot, Portland's Clean Energy Fund is slated to begin rolling out energy efficiency renovations throughout the entire city by the years end. Homeowners pay nothing, and the work is repaid through the resulting savings on their energy bills. Similar financial setups exist elsewhere. The Toronto Atmospheric Fund has been offering low-interest loans paid back through energy-cost savings for years now.

What sets the Portland plan apart is the sheer scope of what is being attempted. Instead of being run like a granting agency -- where the onus is on you to apply for funding to retrofit your building -- the plan seems to be to provide building efficiency the same way you would supply any other type of utility: Everyone is included. The onus is on you to opt out.

Details on the plan are thin on the ground at the moment. But from the little there is, it seems to follow the lines of a plan I commented on in an earlier post. The mayor's emphasis on job creation highlights another benefit of this type of city wide roll-out. On top of the environmental benefits of rapidly upgrading the existing housing stock, and the economic efficiency inherent in operating at this city-wide scale, the plan will produce thousands of jobs in the local economy.

In cities today, energy efficiency is the exception rather than the rule. A utility-scale approach to municipal energy efficiency could be a key part in correcting that balance.
I'll post more on this as details come in.


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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