Urban areas have become a place of growing focus in the mitigation of climate change, and cities all over the world are increasingly engaging and acting where nations are failing to.
As complex systems and places of concentrated consumption, urban areas are acknowledged to have a major environmental responsibility, with their low carbon potential and ‘win-wins’ for the environment and society increasingly recognised.
However, in reality it appears that, despite good intentions, a gap between rhetoric and action persists. I believe we need to think differently about how we approach the problem.
Five and a half years ago I began an EPSRC
funded PhD at UWE Bristol with the aim of exploring “low carbon futures for the Bristol region”.
I swiftly realised that there was limited understanding of the role of cities in transitioning to a low carbon future (what a future low carbon city looks like; how current activities are really contributing to long term goals; and whether sufficient progress is really being made).
The second thing I came to realise, less swiftly, was that tackling this subject was more complex than crunching numbers on insulated lofts and vehicle miles.
We are often quick to set targets and aspirations for a low carbon future but in reality rarely have a shared understanding of what this means or how to achieve it, which can hamper real progress.
Research on this subject can therefore make an interesting and novel contribution, helping us take a step back from the ‘here and now’ and looking instead at what we actually think we are working towards.
Rather than thinking in incremental change, peak-years and reduction rates, I started with the Bristol of the future, exploring perceptions and reactions to the concept of ‘a low carbon city’ by different stakeholders.
The aim was to generate a shared vision of what we are working towards – what an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 looks like – and to improve the way we make decisions about the future by overcoming one of the biggest problems faced by climate policy: long time-scales.
Two scenarios emerged, broadly emphasising ‘global connectivity, economic growth, and technology’ (or ‘low carbon business as usual’), and ‘relocalisation, self-sufficiency, and resilience’.
Many of my findings were about the approach itself and the interactions and thought processes of the individuals involved. The group struggled to imagine a future very different from scenarios we commonly see, and they failed to identify actions beyond the 2030s.
There were also distinct patterns in the responses of people from different sectors, who clustered around themes such as globalisation and economic growth (businesses), localisation and decentralisation (local authorities), and behaviour change (third sector).
What my research highlighted most of all was the need for a dialogue around what we mean when we talk about ‘low carbon’. It highlighted the differing agendas and interpretations present in different groups, and the need for wider engagement in policy making.
Scenario methods do not create blueprints for the future but, through this iterative approach, opinions of a varied group are accumulated, appraised and integrated leading to a more consensual and robust outcome.
This outcome has been incredibly useful for engagement and mobilisation around making Bristol a low carbon city. We talk of ‘shared visions’, but rarely do we set up an inclusive and engaging process for deciding what this is. I went on to develop, thanks to an IES John Rose Award
, a project called ‘Future Bristol
Its launch coincided with the city’s successful bid to be European Green Capital
for 2015, and aimed to use these shared visions to start a public dialogue around the kind of low carbon future we would like to achieve.
In doing this I have tried to employ some of the lessons I have learned along the way about the need to ‘think differently’ on climate change:
1. Get back to the ‘bigger picture’: what do we really want to achieve? By being clear about our end goal – a low carbon city, sustainable business, low impact activity – we can then work out how to achieve it.
2. Appreciate that not everyone has the same ‘bigger picture’. Everyone’s ‘vision’ is different and their motivations vary. Effective policy and strategy involves taking account of differing viewpoints and integrating priorities.
3. Avoid the ‘doom and gloom’ and get the marketing right. We know the Arctic is melting, fuel prices are rising and the weather is dreadful but, if we want to motivate people to make a change, we need to make it desirable.
Carrots and sticks are important, but real change requires a fundamental shift in our thinking and being. I believe that requires belief that it is ‘better’ – be that ‘cooler’, cheaper, more comfortable, more convenient… And I don’t believe preaching works either.
Projects such as Future Bristol are helping to achieve this. It's big picture stuff - two of them in fact. It presents options and choices that are neither right or wrong, but have been gathered from a range of different people and sources and integrated into two possibilities (and there are many others in between). It is also eye-catching and engaging, fun and interactive - and, importantly, it is positive.
Both scenarios show the city as a successful, happy, and aspirational place, without making people feel guilty for not riding a bike.