Meet the Edmonton official leading next year’s landmark conference on climate and cities

The conference will be “key in developing a global research agenda that will establish a new contract between society and climate science in the world’s cities”.

The Canadian city of Edmonton has been chosen to host a first-ever global conference on cities and climate science next year, organisers announced Friday.

The Cities and Climate Change Science Conference, to be held 4-7 March 2018, will be co-sponsored by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body tasked with keeping track of the science on climate change.

The conference will be “key in developing a global research agenda that will establish a new contract between society and climate science in the world’s cities”, Debra Roberts, co-chair of an IPCC working group and a city official in Durban, South Africa, said Friday.

Recent years have seen growing recognition of the needed role for cities in fighting climate change, including among scientists. In 2015, that prompted the inclusion of explicit reference to cities and local authorities in the Paris climate agreement.

But last year marked a significant evolution of priority for the IPCC, as it announced a comprehensive new long-term focus on cities. That will include a cities component to all of the IPCC’s definitive five-yearly reports, as well as a special study on the issue in the coming decade.

[See: Cities to receive new, ongoing focus in official climate research]

The Edmonton conference will now be a key step in that direction, aimed at starting to consolidate and energize the growing body of cities-focused climate science — and to step up translating that work so it can be put into action by mayors around the globe. (Updated information on the conference will be made available here.) Calls for the conference were made in October on the same day that nations gathered in Ecuador approved the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year vision on sustainable cities.

“The 2015 Paris Agreement is a universal call to climate action — but cities around the world need science to help them better understand the action options. Nowhere is this scientific knowledge more urgently required than in the cities of the Global South,” said Roberts.

[See: 2018 conference first to put cities at heart of climate science]

The conference, which is being supported by a spectrum of local governments, civil society groups and UN agencies, will come at a notable point in the global cities discussion.

Just weeks earlier, Kuala Lumpur hosts World Urban Forum 9; months later, in July, the UN’s global development infrastructure will focus attention on Sustainable Development Goal 11, on sustainable cities.

Tucked between those events, the Edmonton conference will bolster what many see as an increasingly urgent mandate for cities, particularly amid ongoing uncertainty about national-level climate action.

The conference will “give new impulse to global and local research on the impacts of climate change on cities, helping local leaders to develop science-based policies for the present and the future,” ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, a supporter of the initiative, said Friday in a statement.

[See: Behind Edmonton’s push toward zero waste: A Q&A with Mayor Don Iveson]

Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, reportedly beat out 10 other cities to host the conference. Citiscope’s Carey L. Biron checked in with the city’s point person for the conference, Jim Andrais, programme manager for the city’s Energy Transition Unit. This interview has been edited for length and consistency


Carey L. Biron: What is the significance of this conference — and why did Edmonton decide to seek to host it?

Jim Andrais: The conference is really a significant international event on the IPCC calendar. It for the first time is focusing on the implications of climate change on cities and from an evidence base, a scientific base. So it will be extremely interesting and an important input into the next assessment report that the IPCC will be bringing forward.

Energy and climate change are very high priorities for the Edmonton city council. When you look at the city council’s top four goals, one of those is exactly that: energy and climate change challenges.

The city council understands the serious global risk around energy and climate, is a leader in our own community to mitigate and adapt, and sees that it’s important to show leadership on this file across the province, country and world. So we do want to be a leader in this area.

[See: Platform needed to provide scientific input on New Urban Agenda implementation, researchers say]

Secondly, as part of our own community marketing and engagement strategy, having an event like this in Edmonton will reinforce with Edmontonians the importance that our own council places on this — it will give them an opportunity to get up close to the event and the number of events that we’ll be leveraging around the conference.

It will be an opportunity for them to reflect on climate change that only happens when you have a thousand leading thinkers and scientists coming to your community.

Q: Do you have a sense on where the people of Edmonton stand on the issue of climate change?

A: Survey work that we’ve done a little over a year ago tells us that that 60 percent of Edmontonians say they’re alarmed or concerned about the risks and implications of climate change — and that they want to see more action from all three orders of governments.

So there is strong awareness and understanding of the challenges. There’s about 30 percent who are in the middle, who are saying, ‘I’d like to know more. I haven’t drawn a line in the sand.’ Then there are 10 percent who dismiss the idea that climate change is real and being caused by humans.

Q: Do Edmontonians look to the city to deliver on climate action?

A: That was part of the survey that we did. Edmontonians told us that they saw municipal governments and grass-roots efforts at that level as being an important part of the solution. They don’t see it entirely as a top-down effort.

[See: Buildings, transport must help ensure emissions ‘turning point’ by 2020, new initiative warns]

Q: Did Edmonton get sign-off from the national government to host this event? Are they supporting this in any way?

A: We had letters of support from the minister of environment and at both the provincial and national level. That was very helpful in winning the host city bid. And in terms of funding commitments, the federal government has indicated that it will be supporting with the funding of the conference.

Q: How many people are expected at the conference — and who?

A: The expected participation is a thousand conference delegates — that’s what we’re aiming for. It’s a science conference and the first time out, so the exact types of scientific submissions have yet to be determined. I think it will emphasize social science and research on cities, as opposed to physical science — we’re not going to be looking at ice-core samples.

So it should appeal to a broad range of participants: those who are deep in the research, and of course policymakers and municipal leaders from across the world will be very interested to be here to learn and also to support this sort of action.

This conference won’t be just about presenting but about understanding the research and the knowledge gaps that exist — and putting in place a work programme that will fill those information needs into the future.

Q: What are you hoping conference-goers know about Edmonton’s own climate-related action?

A: We will be doing site tours of a number of significant projects and initiatives that we think visitors to our city will be interested in. One of those is the sustainable community we are developing right in the centre of Edmonton, at what used to be the City Centre Airport.

The Blatchford Redevelopment will be a carbon-neutral community that we’re breaking ground on this spring, and it will be one of the largest communities of its kind in the world.

[See: Need quick public buy-in on climate action? Think urban heat islands]

Edmonton also has a 30-year record of waste-management excellence. So we’ll be featuring some of the new initiatives that are underway to divert waste streams to sources of energy — waste-to-biofuels.

And we have a home manufacturer who’s building state-of-the-art homes that are assembled on site in one or two days — Landmark Home. Just recently they build the first what we know to be the first net-zero home commercially available for under 400,000 dollars [around USD 292,000], a standalone single-family home.

Q: Finally, as we await word on whether President Donald Trump will pull U. S. support for the Paris Agreement, how do you see the role of cities shaping up vis-à-vis climate action?

A: I think that the policy changes at federal government levels around the world where there is uncertainty and maybe reduced support demonstrated for climate change action just makes it all the more important for cities to be taking the lead with events like the one in Edmonton.

I think this event provides a great opportunity for cities around the world to voice their support for action. In the end, adaptation and mitigation efforts happen on the ground, in cities and communities, and the risks of climate change play out in cities in a big way.

This is very real to cities and perhaps more real to living communities than to higher orders of government, who are removed several times from the actual quality of life on the ground in a city. So any sort of policy change that comes out of Washington will be met by even more and stronger support at the grass-roots community levels.

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope.org.

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