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Tales from two cities

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Climate Change

Two events in the last few weeks have focused my attention on the challenges that climate change poses in urban areas, and how DFID can contribute to finding solutions.

First I paid a visit to Beddington Zero (fossil) Energy Development, or BedZED, the UK’s first large-scale sustainable community in south London. Following that I participated in a national conference in Delhi, co-sponsored by DFID, on sustainable and climate-resilient cities.

Although the motivation behind these two initiatives was quite different, what they both demonstrate is how climate change and sustainability call for fundamental changes in approach and thinking about development.

BedZED was motivated by the idea of ‘one planet living’ and the search for practical solutions to reduce the ecological footprint of people in developed countries in particular. Currently, if everyone in the world enjoyed the same lifestyle as the average western European, we would need three planets to support us. Through a holistic approach to sustainable living – including energy efficiency, solar energy, sustainable construction materials, sustainable transport, water conservation and recycling – BedZED has enabled its residents to reduce their ecological footprint much closer to ‘one planet living’.

Sue Riddlestone, co-founder of BioRegional which initiated BedZED, explained how practical lessons are being learned and are influencing the policies of the local authority and the central UK Government, as well as other countries. As an exemplar of visionary leadership, attention to detail in design and implementation and achievement on the ground, I found BedZED and BioRegional truly inspiring.

Back to Delhi and the national conference co-hosted by DFID and the Rockefeller Foundation on 8 - 9 September. City leaders and planners, policymakers, researchers and practitioners were all brought together for this conference. And it was clear from discussions that the priorities for India’s cities are somewhat different to that of the BedZED founders.

According to Navin Kumar, joint secretary in the Ministry of Urban Development, the critical issue is how to deal with increasing vulnerability, particularly poor communities. Although Mr Kumar also acknowledged the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the way services such as energy, waste management and transport are planned and provided.

Some context may help to illustrate why these issues are so important. As Ashvin Dayal of the Rockefeller Foundation noted at the conference, 350 - 400 million Indians are currently living in cities and a further 250 million will be added by 2030. This is the fastest rate of urbanisation outside China.

Urbanisation has become an important driver of economic growth and poverty reduction in recent years. But with it brings the danger of locking in vulnerability to climate change impacts such as water scarcity, flooding, extreme heat events and cyclones. As several speakers pointed out it is the increasingly numerous urban poor, concentrated in the most marginal areas (as depicted in the film Slumdog Millionaire) and with the fewest assets to fall back on who are most vulnerable.

At the same time, the fact that so much urban infrastructure remains to be built (in contrast to the UK and other Western countries) provides an opportunity to plan cities in ways that reduce both local environmental problems and greenhouse gas emissions. Cities such as Gorakhpur, Indore, Surat and Kolkata, all of which participated in the conference, are just starting to get to grips with the practical challenges of planning for climate change.

One of these is how to break down bureaucratic barriers and get different agencies to cooperate, given the range of responses needed. Such as land use planning, disaster planning, energy, water, solid waste management, transport planning and building standards. Another is how to involve local communities and other stakeholders in understanding the issues and identifying responses. A third is how to interpret information on climate change impacts, including scientific models, in ways that can inform practical courses of action. Planning for climate change in other words, is inseparable from the overall need for sound city governance that benefits all citizens, including the poor.

The Indian government has recently launched a sustainable habitats mission, under its national action plan for climate change, to support and encourage states and cities in this process. DFID is one of the leading donors in urban development in India. Focusing on poverty reduction, delivering basic services and strengthening city management. Having already planned support to over 40 cities over the next five years, DFID is well placed to help the Indian government implement its action plan.

We don’t have all the answers. Nobody does, yet. What was really encouraging therefore was to see so many institutions working in this area. Such as the Integrated Research and Action for Development, The Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET), The Energy and Resources Institute and the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group playing an active role in the Delhi conference.

In the words of Marcus Moench from ISET (who ironically had to rush off after the conference to help some friends affected by a climate-related disaster in his home town of Boulder, Colorado): "shared learning, both within cities and between technical agencies, will be one of the keys to success".

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  1. Comment by zenrainman posted on

    While institutions and agencies have to work on issues of adaptation and mitigation , at an individual level too .

    Here are some ideas from our group



    While defining actions at city scale it is also important to let individuals feel empowered about their ability to make a difference during times of climate change

  2. Comment by Subir Ghosh posted on

    i) I will agree with zenrainman, and would like to take this further. I agree the "individual" has been missing from climate change campaigns. By individuals, I mean those at the bottom of the chain.

    ii) My second problem is that I see things moving at too much of a slow pace. Climate change is affecting our lives at a much faster pace than at which the campaigns are running.

    We really don't have much time.