There is such a thing as a bicycle highway, operating as a network independent of regular highways. This infrastructure has emerged in Copenhagen, where there are plans for service centres, GPS-triggered traffic lights and intelligent transport systems all focused on bikes. But of course, most cities are nowhere near such cyclist nirvana.
On a recent planning project for a fairly large new office development in an urban area, the developer wanted to establish a campus feel, with strong emphasis on walking and cycling. The offices were to be low-rise and distributed at a relatively low density - generally not a great way to reduce urban sprawl, but an interesting opportunity to downplay the private motor vehicle. It's hard to get everything right, but at least we can try to make the most of the situations that present themselves.
So I jumped at the chance to convince the urban planners on the job that instead of using the internal road network to provide structure to the site layout, as is usually the case, we could start with the pedestrian / cyclist network, and hang everything off that. Cyclists would have priority over other modes of transport, but more importantly the development would be inherently good at making non-motorised transport as easy as possible. Routes would be direct, distances would be short, and instead of forcing pedestrians and cyclists to pass through parking lots, the buildings would sit directly on the bicycle network for door-to-door travel.
Bicycle lanes, even where they are included in the initial design of roads, are really just a relegation of cyclists to second-tier priority. This would be turning the usual model on its head. Brilliant, huh?
Apparently not. Despite a project vision that said all the right things and seemed to support what I was suggesting, the planners just said "yeah, great" and went ahead with a conventional approach. In fact it would feel even less like a campus than a normal car-dominated college, since open spaces for relaxation and casual conversation were just tiny corners dotted here and there, with no real amenity. I still don't know whether the planners didn't understand, or didn't care, or if the developer wasn't interested.
In my darker moments, I find myself imagining The Revenge of the Cyclists. Forget organizing car-free days, we'll just hop on our steeds and take over the streets en masse. Get sprayed with water cannons, arrested and rehabilitated by being forced to watch cars being assembled in a General Motors factory. The hard-core rebels, those who refuse to repent, will be sent to camps where the only activity will be watching TV reruns of CHiPs. With sadistic pleasure, wardens will play Joni Mitchell singing "Big Yellow Taxi".
I'm getting hysterical now. Somebody please shut m
I wrote this as a backgrounder for a post on Arup's COP15 blog, with research and contributions from some colleagues in South Africa and Botswana. Bits of it appear in David Singleton's post, and the full article follows below.
South African President Jacob Zuma's announcement that the country will reduce emissions by 34% by 2020 has taken local and international commentators by surprise. It is not clear how much this commitment has been debated within the ANC, but there is not much public awareness of the basis for the decision, or of its social and economic implications.
Environmental awareness appears to vary significantly among rich and poor communities in developing countries. The wealthy are more likely to consider recycling or installing solar panels. However, awareness is only one challenge. In Botswana, most people lack easy access to capital, which makes even changing to CFL bulbs difficult. A solar water heater costs several months of a teacher's salary, or several years of a manual worker's salary. At household level, therefore, many technological interventions still are not feasible without subsidy or other incentives.
There are people working to raise awareness, particularly for the purpose of two-way knowledge transfer and community empowerment. Professor Bruce Hewitson, director of the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town, and a Coordinating Lead Author on regional climate change projections for both the IPCC's 3rd and 4th Assessment Report, is working on downscaling Global Climate Models to improve their ability to help governments plan for adaptation.
At a climate change forum in Cape Town last year, Hewitson said that there is no integration between the science and the social challenges we face in responding to climate change. Vulnerability is a function of exposure to risk, the magnitude of the risk, and capacity to respond. Africa faces heavy exposure to climate-related risk of high magnitude, and has a poor capacity to respond positively. Hewitson and his group are working with organisations like weADAPT to find ways to improve collaboration between researchers and communities in improving resilience and adaptation to change.
In developing countries, there seems to be a dearth of research on community opinions about climate change, or on choices people would make if they were compelled to take action. However there are at least two possible reasons for placing a higher priority on adaptation than on mitigation in these countries. The first is that most poor countries have little scope for decreasing emissions, since they already produce so little per capita. The issues for them are health and social and economic welfare. It would be great to install solar water heaters, design more thermally comfortable homes, and reduce reliance on biomass for cooking - but the purpose should not be for reducing emissions but rather for improving quality of life.
The second pressing reason for adaptation is that the effects of change are already being felt. The most vulnerable communities are living on marginal land: in urban areas, often where flooding is most prevalent; and in rural areas, where crops are grown on the fringes of habitats where they can be grown successfully. These people often lack the resilience needed to recover even from small and short-term variations in temperature or rainfall, and need support for adaptation.
Botswana feels these impacts keenly. According to a paper by Professor Roman Grynberg and Victoria Ndzinge-Anderson of the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis, for a decade the government has been studying the impacts of a hotter and drier scenario on firewood and water availability, flooding, disease, wildlife and tourism. Government ministries are prepared to deal with many of these effects, but lack the resources to implement strategies. For a country that contributes an insignificant 0.02% to global greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation support clearly cannot be linked to emissions reductions.
South Africa, responsible for 1.2% of global emissions (40% of Africa's GHG), must tread more carefully in the political minefields of Copenhagen. The South African government announcement ties emissions reductions to aid for coping with the transition, but doesn't provide details of what the aid is for. A statement from the Presidency notes that the negotiations in Copenhagen should balance adaptation and mitigation, and 'should strengthen climate resilient development and must urgently assist the world's poorest and most vulnerable to adapt to the inevitable impacts of a rapidly changing climate.' The statement goes on to say that the mitigation actions needed to reduce emissions by 34% are conditional on 'finance, technology and support for capacity building from developed countries,' and that 'an ambitious and long term financing package for both adaptation and mitigation is a central element of the Copenhagen negotiations and one that will have significant impact on the extent to which developing countries can take mitigation action.'
As a relatively wealthy country among the under-developed, South Africa has seen very little public debate about what carbon emissions reduction means for society. Some commentators have suggested that President Zuma's recent announcement means that power utility Eskom will have to forgo construction of one of three planned coal-fired power stations. What is not clear is whether the intention is to replace this with nuclear or renewable energy sources, but either way the elimination of one dirty power station is not enough on its own to reach the 34% reduction target.
There will need to be changes in other sectors, and this calls for leadership not only from government but also from civil society. Organisations such as the Green Building Council of South Africa have begun the transformation process, and Arup is proud to have helped the Council develop its Green Star rating tool for office buildings. However this is only the start of what needs to become a concerted effort by Africa's largest emitter of greenhouse gases to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies. While the economic case for investment in transformation may not have been concluded, there is a sense of inevitability about the prospect of funding tied to emissions protocols, and developing countries are lining up.
Postscript: This post was written before the big split emerged in the G77, but it has always been clear that South Africa is not firmly in any camp in these negotiations. The country is too rich (and carbon-intensive) to have the same motivation as the poorest nations, but it's also very different from India and China. This puts the country in a difficult position, particularly as it seemed two years ago in Bali that South Africa had ambitions to be Africa's leader in UNFCCC negotiations. Perhaps Zuma wants to play the broker role, but if so, he's going to have to work out his strategy.
I have always been a bit uncomfortable with using purely economic arguments as a basis for prioritising public investments, and on the issue of combating climate change, it seems to me even more important that some sort of hybrid approach be adopted that is as defensible as possible, while recognising unquantifiable factors. My concern with the numbers game is that we never really have the full picture. In the end, decisions are not as robust as we'd like, and we just have to do the best we can.
The science that provides inputs to decisions on mitigation and adaptation is changing all the time, and in any case the people making decisions at COP15 can't all be expected to understand the nuances of the science, so they have to trust certain arguments and drop the others. (Or, just as likely, base their positions on their particular political realities.) That's life. But what should the negotiators - or we ourselves, for that matter - base our conclusions on, if not on a quantifiable analysis of the costs and benefits of various possible strategies?
I suggest that one of the key informants should be our sense of justice, equity and welfare. There is nothing new in that, and in fact it is the basis of much of the arguments going on in Copenhagen right now. But while justice is discussed as a basis for who should get how much funding through a UNFCCC climate agreement, and for the carbon emissions limits to be applied to different countries, I haven't heard the concept used much in debates about what the potential strategies for mitigation should be.
Economists like Sir Nicholas Stern on the one hand, and Bjorn Lomborg on the other, take opposing views on what to do about climate change, despite both trying to use rational economics to arrive at their conclusions. Clearly these arguments need to be augmented with something that will help us wade through the quagmire. For the short term, that something is probably a consideration of who is most at risk, and unable to adapt without assistance. Ultimately, though, we are all at risk, so we need to consider longer-term implications of our actions. Relying on big geo-engineering solutions is risky, in much the same way that nuclear energy has a theoretically low risk but serious impacts if something does go wrong.
Possibly the most sensible approach, and certainly one that makes intuitive sense to me, is to consider strategies that address more than one concern at the same time. Forget the big bang and go for incremental improvements that allow us to learn from mistakes without destroying life in the process. Developing renewable energy, for example, addresses the problem of peak oil while also reducing the greenhouse gas effect and the immediate health effects of emissions that are toxic or contain particulates that damage lungs. Given the uncertainties of where our climate will be in 10 or 20 years, increasing resilience is a key challenge that we should be working on, from as many angles as possible.
The December 5 edition of The Economist suggests that the technology already exists to stop climate change, even without using nuclear power, geo-engineering or carbon capture and storage. But we need to choose our approach wisely.
It's not about the money for small island states, it's about basic survival. This marks something of a shift in acceptance of what climate science has been saying since Bali two years ago. In 2009 there is no questioning the reality of the threats. And this may be one reason for the current rift in the G77. For countries like South Africa, which is experiencing a falling-out with poorer G77 states at COP15, it is about the money. While the politically correct language in this context is to talk of mitigation and adaptation together, the negotiations for South Africa seem to be about how to finance economic growth with new, cleaner technologies. That's mitigation, not adaptation.
The Climate Action Network seems to think that the climate finance negotiations are about funding adaptation, but I don't think the South African government sees it that way. Adaptation is about ensuring that communities can be flexible in response to climate-related stresses, but South Africa is asking for international funding without having a community-level resilience strategy in place.
One of the problems in the UNFCCC negotiations is that each country is treated as if it were a homogeneous entity. The reality is very different. South Africa, like many other countries, is a microcosm of the developed vs developing dichotomy, containing economic extremes within its borders.
Energy poverty is a serious concern, and it is a mistake to put too much emphasis on the idea that countries like South Africa should avoid following the trajectory of developed countries in increasing energy as they climb out of poverty. Yes, the carbon intensity of South Africa per capita should be kept down, but that really means that the rich in South Africa should change their energy patterns, not that the poor should be denied access to electricity. So just as developed and developing countries are discussing their "common but differentiated responsibilities" for past, present and future emissions, we should make the same distinction in South Africa.
South Africa treats access to water as a basic right (although the application of this principle is patchy), and energy should be seen the same way. During this past week, Eskom has pointed out that the mess of illegal electricity connections in informal settlements causes children to die every year, but there is no alternative being rolled out. For the sake of poverty reduction and improved equity, we need to find ways to improve safe access to energy, not just try to reduce emissions growth. Both need to be done urgently, and both depend on renewable energy sources.
COP15. Three objectives, in a nutshell. First it was mitigation, then the need for adaptation was more widely recognised as developing countries raised their voices and developed nations started seeing they would have to adapt too, particularly as it became apparent that emissions reductions are proving elusive. The third objective is less widely discussed but just as important: development.
South Africa and other less developed countries are emphasising the need for clean technology for mitigation and adaptation, and financial contributions to make technology transfer happen. Most commentators take this for granted, and debate how an agreement will be reached on financial transfer. But what of the developmental state that South Africa wishes to be?
Handouts will do little to advance the local development agenda. It might be argued that they are needed, but not so much for making a big difference to global emissions. Coming off a low emissions base, poor countries can do very little to mitigate climate change. In fact, 80% of global emissions come from the G20, leaving the other 180-odd countries responsible for only 20%. South Africa is a member of the G20, but is the only one from sub-Saharan Africa.
The BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China & South Africa) are all in the G20 and in the list of top-20 emitters. Together they account for about 23% of global emissions of CO2, but given their low rate per capita (under 3,000 tonnes per 1,000 people - with the exception of South Africa), and their strong growth trajectories, there might not be much scope for meaningful reductions based on technology handouts.
South Africa has just announced that it will reduce emissions by 34% from current business as usual (see update below) levels by 2020, and that financial aid is needed to achieve this target. India (also a member of the G20) has recently announced a 25% reduction in emission intensity, saying that it will strengthen their bargaining position in Copenhagen. Both countries seem to be saying that by tying at least some of their efforts to international aid, they will not suffer economically. Call it an investment in productive capacity.
So really, the developing world is asking for handouts because they hope it will help with economic development. And since economic growth in developing countries is in the interests of developed countries, the aid is likely to come in one form or another. But this raises the question: will the type of technology that eventually arrives on African soil, courtesy of transfer agreements, be the right stuff for creating appropriate forms of development?
Or maybe that's not quite the right question. We could also ask, what are the conditions that should be nurtured in developing countries in order to make the most of what's on offer? Things like good governance, skills development, and social upliftment. Without these enablers in place, technology can do very little for either emissions or economic development. And can agreements be reached that will support them, without the threat of political meddling?
Even if I am wrong about the scope for South Africa's contribution to global carbon reductions, the rest of sub-Saharan Africa (and 90% of the world's countries) have nothing to bring to the table. What they need is sustainable development; but even if we ignore the poor track record of aid programmes in this regard, their low emissions mean that there is also little scope for aid under a clean technology transfer agreement.
**** Update on 8 Dec 2009: Today's Business Report notes that South Africa's pledge is probably using the country's Long Term Mitigation Scenario forecasts as its base for 2020 emissions under business as usual. (And that this means canning one of three planned coal-fired power stations and replacing this with renewable energy.)
The Scoreboard team will follow the negotiations at COP15 in Copenhagen from day to day, and continue tracking progress in the months following the conference, addressing the question: if current proposals for emissions reductions were implemented how much future warming would be avoided?
This visual representation shows, in real time, how negotiated commitments can be expected to alter the climate change forecast, and will be updated automatically as climate negotiations proceed. Spread awareness by posting the widget on your blog or web site - just click on 'Get& Share' above.
An analytical post on The Blackboard has raised again the concern I have with climate analysis based on short-term observations. Climate models tied to long-term historical records are all we really have to go on for understanding the relationship between atmospheric carbon and global temperatures. The models still have lots of limitations, but they are improving constantly as new studies lead to better understanding of the many processes that influence climate.
Two points in response to Lucia's blog post, which assesses temperature trend over the most recent nine-year period.
First, climate scientists contributing to the IPCC reports are well aware of weather cycles and short-term trends. A nine-year trend analysis is simply an interesting short-term observation that contributes little to the veracity of long-term forecasts.
Second, as a throw-away at the end she briefly mentions longer term historic trends as being low and suggests that this, together with her analysis of the nine-year trend, means that future trends will be positive but low. While her analysis of the short term may be rigorous (though I can’t vouch for that), this concluding comment is not presented with any analysis to back it up.
Her final line, "Other than models, there is no evidence the climate trend has increased from historic levels to reach a rate of 2C/century," is curious. This seems to suggest that "evidence" means "observations", since any other form of evidence must be from some kind of model. The very concept of an average global temperature is a model - we cannot simply go out with thermometers and calculate an average over the globe and over a year, without making assumptions about weather systems and the circulation of air.
I am not trying to trash Lucia's analysis, but voicing a cautionary note that whatever we want to believe about climate change, we need to recognize the limitations of analysis. We just need to take the best we have, and go from there.
If you are interested in the implications of climate change for Africa, I highly recommend that you have a look at the new report from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change (Imperial College London), “The science of climate change in Africa: impacts and adaptation”. It provides, I believe, a very rational summary of the current state of understanding of the likely climate impacts for Africa.
The report points out that many of the likely effects of climate change are things that are experienced regularly as a result of normal cyclical variations, and that African communities therefore have much to contribute to the development of adaptation strategies that are essential even if there is no climate change at all. In that respect, one could argue that – at least in Africa – to some extent the whole debate about climate change is a diversion from work that needs to be done to improve lives and livelihoods. We don't only have inter-generational equity to worry about (as in the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability, which talks of leaving a healthy earth for future generations), but also intra-generational challenges.
An interesting point from the report is that we can already forecast with 70% accuracy whether Zimbabwean maize harvests will fail or not each season. Those farmers, and their markets, need strategies to improve resilience to such shocks. A related point is that “Many crops in Africa are grown close to their limits of thermal tolerance.” (page 11) Which means that even small variations in temperature, even if they are short-term changes caused by El Nino or other factors, can devastate agriculture and food security.
In an effort to ensure that the west doesn't control the agenda of COP15 in Copenhagen, developing countries have prepared a 10-page declaration of their non-negotiable demands of their own.
The idea of a counter draft representing the positions of developing nations came from Beijing. Chinese climate negotiators last week wrote up a first text, which underwent revisions on Saturday after India, Brazil and South Africa put forward their specific recommendations.
The draft will be released in Copenhagen by Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy for climate change, on December 1, the day Denmark unveils its text to a select group of countries, including India and China.
Glad to see South Africa is taking up its position in BRICS.