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Climate change planning goes mainstream

“It isn’t so much that it’s hard to reconcile economic and environmental priorities. It’s that we’re not trying.”

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Cities around the world are grappling with climate change.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Planning for climate change is going mainstream, according to a new survey showing that many cities around the world routinely incorporate global warming considerations into their plans. Globally. 75 percent of cities are including climate in their basic urban planning, but the U.S. is lagging, at just 38 percent.

And there’s still a disconnect when it comes to making such plans mesh with economic development priorities, according to the MIT researchers who compiled and interpreted the survey results.

The Urban Climate Change Governance Survey is based on responses from 350 cities worldwide and underscores the extent to which city leaders recognize climate change as a major challenge — even as they are trying to figure out how their responses can create jobs, growth, and cost savings in areas ranging from cities’ transportation networks to their distribution of businesses.

“Climate change isn’t an isolated issue,” says Alexander Aylett, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), and the lead author of today’s report. “It has large implications for all other aspects of urban life. What we are seeing is cities starting to build it into the DNA of how they approach urban planning.”

According to the findings, 75 percent of cities worldwide now tackle climate-change issues as a mainstream part of their planning, and 73 percent of cities are attempting both climate mitigation and climate adaptation — that is, they are trying both to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to adapt to long-term changes that are already in motion. But only 21 percent of cities report tangible connections between the response to climate change and achieving other local development goals.

That shows there’s opportunity to create more awareness about programs that generate economic benefits from climate change preparations. Portland, Ore., for example, developed incentives, training, and regulations to help sustainable construction firms grow, while a pilot program called Clean Energy Works Portland employed 400 workers to reduce home energy use, reducing carbon emissions by 1,400 metric tons annually.

Aylett said urban planners in Alberta have studied the cost savings associated with limiting metropolitan sprawl and concluded that denser development could save $11 billion in capital costs over the next 60 years, and $130 million in annual maintenance. But most cities have simply not yet identified ways to link climate planning and economic development in the first place.

“It isn’t so much that it’s hard to reconcile economic and environmental priorities,” Aylett says. “It’s that we’re not trying.”

The results showed continuing regional disparities in urban climate planning. Compared with the global average of 75 percent, U.S. cities lag in planning for both mitigation and adaptation, with just 58 percent of cities addressing both. This echoes results from a companion 2012 survey, which revealed that a smaller portion of U.S. cities were doing basic climate-change planning, compared with those in other regions — 59 percent in the U.S., for instance, compared with 95 percent in Latin America.

Globally, 63 percent of cities say they have between one and five employees dedicated to climate-change planning; North American cities are most likely to have just one staff member focused on the topic. As the report’s executive summary notes, “A lack of funding to hire sufficient staff to work on climate change is a significant challenge for 67 percent of cities.”

On a different note, about 85 percent of cities have conducted an inventory of local greenhouse-gas emissions, and 15 percent, as part of that effort, have tried to track the emissions that stem from goods and services consumed within that city.

“Beginning to address these upstream emissions is crucial if cities are really going to help bring down global emissions.”

The results also reveal that local industries and businesses are relatively disengaged with urban responses to climate change: About 25 percent of cities say that local businesses have been crucial to creating and implementing their climate mitigation plans, whereas 48 percent of cities report that local civil-society groups, such as nonprofits or other organizations, have been involved in climate planning.

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2 Responses

  1. There are some good books out there on this topic- “Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously” by Kent Portney is one, and “Sustainability in America’s Cities” edited by Matthew Slavin. Worth checking out if you want more reading on whats going on in the US.

    Portney also operates a blog (though it isn’t often updated) with information on Sustainable Cities. http://ourgreencities.typepad.com

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