Green-leaning Bristol in late 2018 became the first British city to declare a “climate emergency.” As part of that move, it announced an ambitious, stepped-up target to cut its planet-warming emissions to net zero by 2030.
Unusually, the goal covers not only emissions from electricity, gas and transport fuel used in the city, but also emissions generated in producing the goods and services consumed there — even if that happened elsewhere.
However, work to shift the port city in southwest England onto a cleaner path had begun far earlier, even before Bristol’s initial 2015 decision to become carbon-neutral by 2050, said Kye Dudd, a Labour councilor who leads work on transport and energy.
“The challenge of 2030 was not what do we do about it. In Bristol, it was how do we accelerate what we are doing,” he said.
Several months before the emergency declaration, Bristol had invited proposals from businesses to team up with the city on about ￡1 billion (US$1.29 billion) of clean energy and green infrastructure projects. The city expects to choose a partner for the “City Leap” program by the end of this summer.
Together, city officials hope, they can develop more solar and wind power capacity, expand the district heating network, and roll out smart energy and battery technology, for starters.
Dudd said the initiative had to involve both government and business, as the shift was too big for the council to manage alone — but the city also wanted to ensure local communities would benefit from new skills and revenues through its 50 percent stake in the joint venture.
“A lot of people are watching this and want to know if it will work,” he said. “Other local authorities don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”
Around the world, front-runner cities are testing new ways to cut their emissions faster and protect residents from floods, heat waves and rising sea levels, while improving their quality of life in the bargain.
According to advocacy group The Climate Mobilization, which is trying to persuade governments to respond urgently to climate change, more than 1,300 local governments in about 25 countries have now declared a “climate emergency.”
However, in many cases, translating that into concrete action is an uphill struggle, not least because it requires a wholesale shake-up of established methods of working, climate experts say.
“Emergency declarations, if they are real, can be very powerful tools, depending on the kind of governance and legal framework you’re in,” said Michael Berkowitz, a founding principal of nonprofit consultancy Resilient Cities Catalyst.
In countries such as the US, such declarations can focus attention, unlock resources and help cut through red tape, but to radically shrink a city’s carbon footprint would take sustained effort “over a couple of political cycles,” the former head of the 100 Resilient Cities network said.
For instance, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Labour politician, has pushed on with cleaner transport policies started by his Conservative predecessor, Boris Johnson, now Britain’s prime minister, including low emission zones and cycling infrastructure, Berkowitz said.
Another way to protect green policies is for local governments to involve businesses and civil society groups as equal partners in the push to tackle climate change, he said, citing the port city of Rotterdam as a good example.
“If it’s just mayors with small coalitions pounding the table, that feels like hollow political statements,” he added.
Last month, Barcelona city hall declared a climate emergency — but only after holding a series of public consultations in the preceding three months, involving representatives of about 200 organizations, to thrash out a comprehensive action plan.
The document contains more than 100 measures to enable the city to meet a tighter target of cutting its emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and help residents adapt to climate change impacts, backed with 563 million euros (US$614 million) of public money.
The actions include reducing private vehicles on Barcelona’s roads, making residential buildings energy-efficient, producing more renewable energy, increasing doorstep waste collection and recycling, and adding green space, especially around schools.
“We decided not to make a declaration of intention with an empty result or just long-term promises,” said Barcelona Councilor Eloi Badia, who is leading the work.
The announcement came right after the introduction of the city’s low-emissions zone, which aims to curb vehicle pollution. However, the extent to which the left-wing city government has brought big business along with it remains unclear.
The Spanish city’s port and airport have pushed back against proposals aimed at lowering their emissions, such as cutting some short-haul flights. They have also defended their existing efforts to tackle climate change.
In Milan, police on Feb. 2 handed out several hundred fines to people who ignored a one-day ban on most vehicles, a test move aimed at tackling the Italian city’s notorious smog.
Ahead of that emergency measure, Milan Agency for Mobility and the Environment CEO Gloria Zavatta said that getting residents onside was a tough task.
“Every time you ask people to change their habits and leave their car at home, they don’t think about their health — they are thinking about the easy way to get to work,” she said.
Raising awareness among inhabitants about the health and other benefits of cutting down private vehicle use and the air pollution it generates will be an important part of the “air and climate” plan the city is now putting together, she added.
Last year, Milan declared a climate emergency and approved targets to achieve European clean air standards by 2025, as well as to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030.
The best way forward was to tackle the two challenges together so as not to create new problems, such as switching to burning of wood or other biomass for heat, which could reduce carbon emissions, but worsen air quality, it said.
The new plan would build on ongoing efforts to expand public transport, electrify all public buses and save on energy consumption by buildings, Zavatta said.
Milan is one of 15 cities receiving support from a European-funded initiative to trial new approaches to achieve big aims on climate change — something backers said would require experimentation and working across departmental silos.
The EIT Climate-KIC “Deep Demonstrations” program, which plans to reach 100 cities by 2030, would give each city 1 million euros a year for five years to craft “radical climate action.” That could be anything from eliminating port emissions to shaking up food systems or moving away from heavy industry while helping workers through the transition.
Thomas Osdoba, a senior city adviser with EIT Climate-KIC, an EU public-private partnership to build a zero-carbon economy, said that municipal authorities needed resources and expertise to move away from “business as usual” — not easy when they must continue to provide city services on a daily basis.
One way to shift the needle is for cities to set up their own utility-style enterprises that can make it easier for residents to choose greener services, he said.
For example, from Barcelona to Bristol and Vancouver to London, businesses and homeowners can now buy clean power procured by municipal energy firms at a competitive price.
Similar entities could be set up to turbo-charge efforts to consume more locally grown food or to green cities like Milan, which plans to plant 3 million trees by 2030, Osdoba said.
The expected returns from increasing urban vegetation — such as cooler temperatures, less flooding and better public health — could be used to raise capital to pay private property owners to plant trees, he added.
“That’s a big idea and it’s not simple, but if you’re going to plant 3 million trees in a region, you kind of have to work that way,” Osdoba said.
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