Climate action needs to be part of city planning - urban leaders

tree planting reforestation
Large-scale community reforestation and tree planting initiatives could be a more successful form of climate change adaptation policy for local governments. This kind of project was initiated in Durban, South Africa which also helped create jobs. Image: Shutterstock

From Durban, South Africa, to West Chester, Pennsylvania, local and municipal governments are trying to do their part to slow the advance of global climate change and adapt their communities to new climate realities, as laid out in the latest IPCC report by scientists this week.

Their methods vary, and focus on everything from better education to cutting emissions. Their success varies as well. Some have completed ambitious projects, while others struggle for the smallest amounts of attention and funding. Assistance from national governments or international institutions can be spotty, if it comes at all.

Adaptation is local….Mitigation is a much more international response, because there’s one singular problem, and there are a limited set of tools to address that. It doesn’t matter where that carbon dioxide is produced or sucked out of the atmosphere. Adaptation is context specific

Debra Roberts, head of Durban’s Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department

Action on “climate change is often thought of as a voluntary activity for local governments,” said Maryke van Staden, a programme manager for ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. “They have the mandate for other things, but climate change is normally a national government mandate. So both in terms of budget and capacity, it’s quite often not at hand in municipalities.”

“The cities that have been able to move on it have established a priority and embedded it into their whole system,” she said.

Learning to adapt in Durban

The city of Durban, South Africa, is one of those. Despite being one of the poorest large cities in the country, it has turned itself into a global model for local-level climate change adaptation.

The Durban Adaptation Charter, passed at UN climate negotiations held in Durban in 2011, commits local governments around the world to take adaptation seriously and act on it to a reasonable degree. It has been signed by more than 1,100 local governments or organisations, spanning the globe from Norway to Argentina. 

One example of an initiative in Durban itself is the city’s “green roof” project, which has “highlighted the value of green roofs in encouraging inner-city biodiversity, also as a potential source of inner-city food security and a tool to reduce the impacts of the urban heat island and increased storm water runoff,” according to a report produced by the city’s climate protection managers.

Debra Roberts heads Durban’s Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department, where she has been working for 10 years. Over that time, she has learned difficult lessons about local climate change policy, experiencing “some good successes, some very disastrous failures, but all learning experiences along the way.”

“Durban really stands apart from many other cities around the world in that our work is predominantly adaptation based,” Roberts said. She explained that of the two main types of climate change action – adaptation to climate change impacts and mitigation of climate changing emissions - adaptation is more suited to local governments because it is very location-specific, compared to mitigation which needs to take place on a global scale.

“Adaptation is local,” she said. “Mitigation is a much more international response, because there’s one singular problem, and there are a limited set of tools to address that. It doesn’t matter where that carbon dioxide is produced or sucked out of the atmosphere. Adaptation is context specific. The adaptive needs of Durban are very different to the adaptive needs of Cape Town.”

Beyond that recognition, the obstacles to acting on adaptation, or even talking about it, are many, Roberts said.

 “The challenge landscape is so complex, one can’t really suss out one discreet element and say this is the biggest one,” she said. “It’s the interplay that creates the problem. It’s a combination, for example, of politicians who don’t believe that climate change is real combined with the fact that we had no initial funding, combined with the fact that there’s such a huge brain drain (from emigration from South Africa), combined with the fact that the development agendas are overwhelming.”

But despite those challenges, in Durban, at least, the local governing body, starting from essentially very little, has made significant progress.

One example of the work done in Durban is ambitious reforestation work taking place near the city. As part of green development efforts surrounding the 2010 World Cup, which took place in Durban and other cities in South Africa, a number of large-scale community reforestation initiatives were established near the city, the first of which was located in the buffer zone around a landfill.

According to a report by the city leadership, “this project created jobs for local community members in managing the nursery and planting the trees on site, and provided others with the opportunity to become ‘treepreneurs’ by growing locally sourced indigenous seedlings for the project.”

In implementing Durban’s green push, “there was no grand plan in the beginning because there was no precedent and we didn’t know enough. What we’ve done is taken small steps, learned within the context of taking those steps, and either changed direction or built on the previous work to take it forward,” Roberts said.

The keys to success, she added, are patience and intuition.

“These complex problems are not amenable to logical, linear solutions. It’s about playing at the socio-institutional landscape, it’s about building champions in the right places, it’s about positioning power bases relative to other power bases in a way that gives you opportunities, both political and economic … It’s about being opportunistic and knowing when to step forward and when to step back,” she said.

Struggling for a voice in Pennsylvania

On a much smaller scale, it can sometimes be difficult for local community activists for climate action to be heard amid a din of interests, or to get proposals past everything from annoyed neighboring towns to apathetic governments.

In West Chester, Pennsylvania, a small university town 40 km (25 miles) west of Philadelphia, a volunteer, ad-hoc committee of the local governing council has been unsuccessfully advocating for the renewal of a passenger rail service to Philadelphia since 2006.

West Chester was the start of a rail line that went to Philadelphia until 1986, when that section of the line was discontinued due to track deterioration and low ridership, according to a case study provided by ICLEI.

 In recent years, automobile use has risen while public transportation use has fallen, meaning that West Chester’s transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions have climbed.

Community activists would like to renovate the rail line and renew rail service, as a way of cutting those emissions. But various challenges have gotten in the way, including a lack of money, bureaucracy, politics and a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude about the rail line from neighbouring communities.

 “The challenge is to divert public money from road repair and expansion (funded by gasoline taxes) toward public transportation projects (funded by sporadic legislation for specific projects) to meet the needs of the next generation of commuters,” said Jim Wylie, head of the West Chester Borough Leaders United for Emissions Reduction (BLUER) committee on transportation.

But making such changes has been far from easy. One of the keys to success, he said, is being ready to use whatever limited funding becomes available, and having a plan ready for whatever becomes available next.

 “A big part of politics is setting priorities on what we should do with our collective pile of tax dollars,” he said. “But you can do a lot with existing funding, if you are willing to wait for the right opportunity.”

For instance, he said, “when that road is re-paved and re-striped, add a bike lane. When a new development is proposed for Route 3, encourage the developer to put in new sidewalks and a bus stop on Route 3. I find that a lot can be done just by supporting the existing plans that the professional planners have written down.”

And political timing is as important as financial timing, according to Wylie. “The short game, in my mind, is recognising that, at least in Pennsylvania, we tend to swing from liberal to conservative leadership. If you have a friendly administration in office, work hard to get your projects started because the next administration might not be so friendly,” he said.

Read more here on the 29 levels of bureaucracy in Indonesia.

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