IPCC cities conference tackles gaps between science and climate action on the ground

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The IPCC’s first cities conference revealed the challenges in bridging the gaps between scientific knowledge and policy practice, and between cities in developed and developing nations.
Cities IPCC/Twitter

Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Some 600 climate scientists, urban researchers, policymakers and practitioners attended the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first ever conference on cities last week. Hosted in Edmonton, Canada, it was organised as a forum to share knowledge and advice in support of the sixth IPCC Assessment Report (AR6) due in 2021.

The significance of a UN-organised global scientific conference on climate change and cities should not be underestimated. Urbanisation has been a United Nations concern since 1963. Policy attention strengthened in the 1970s when the UN Habitat agency was established. This focus was redoubled in the mid-2000s when it was reported that more than half of the global population was now urban.

Climate change has been a topic of UN action since 1988, with policy attention intensifying in the late 1990s and mid-2010s. Appreciation has since grown that with 55% of the world’s people now living in cities, this is where where efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change must be focused.

Read more:
This is why we cannot rely on cities alone to tackle climate change

A collision of science, practice and politics

By venturing onto urban terrain the IPCC faces some interesting scientific questions. To a large degree biological or physical systems can be studied as objective phenomena that behave according to discoverable and predictable patterns. Carbon dioxide objectively traps solar radiation leading to climatic warming; biological species die at temperatures above their tolerance.

By contrast cities are riven with historical, social, economic, cultural and political dynamics. The theoretical and conceptual frames that scientists apply to cities are subject to many biases.

We certainly can calculate the emissions a city produces and chart the likely impacts on it from a changing climate. But the reasons why a city came to emit so much and how it responds to the need to reduce emissions and adapt to impacts are highly contingent. Objective validation and verification are difficult. Identifying causality and forward pathways is very difficult.

There is also a vast divide between the physical and social science of cities and the policymakers and practitioners who shape urban development. Research shows that most urban professionals simply do not read urban science. Instead they draw on practice knowledge acquired from peer practitioners via an array of non-scientific channels and networks.

These difficulties were observable at the IPCC cities conference. It was scientific in purpose but a subtle politics was at play. Rather than being convened by a scientific body, the conference was co-ordinated as an instrument of the world’s national polities and the IPCC, organised by a mix of UN organisations and NGO networks, and sponsored by a local, provincial and national government.

Fewer than two-thirds of delegates were scientists; the remaining 40 per cent were policy officials and practitioners. The problem of connecting scientific and practice knowledge was often on display.

Many cities have accepted the clear scientific evidence on climate change and accompanying global targets. These cities are striving at the local scale to cut emissions and adapt to changing climate patterns. For many, their main need is for knowledge of practical policies and programs, rather than more evidence of climate change impacts or mitigation technologies.

Often these cities are racing far ahead of slow and certain science. They are sharing practical experience of mitigation and adaptation strategies via self-organising peer-city networks. Finding ways to link inventive but unsystematic practice knowledge with the formal peer-reviewed processes of orthodox science will be a critical task for climate change scientists and policymakers.

Read more:
How American cities & states are fighting climate change globally

Policymakers are also grappling with how to implement global agreements within complex international arrangements. There face myriad tiers of national, regional, city and local governance, involving a plethora of discrete public, private and civic actors.

For this group, their priorities at the IPCC cities conference concerned policy processes and institutional design, political commitment and implementation instruments. Their needs are for policy, institutional and political science as much as for further scientific detail on climate change.

What did these encounters reveal?

The conference generated many fascinating insights. One major theme was the question of informality.

Many cities beyond the developed world are weakly governed. Multiple dimensions of urban life, including housing and infrastructure, are organised via informal institutions. Achieving effective action in these circumstances is a considerable policy problem.

A related problem is the gross geographical imbalance in scientific effort and focus on urban climate questions. Most research focuses on the cities of the developed West. And most of those are comparatively well resourced to respond to climate change.

In contrast, the cities of the developing world lack a systematic data and research base to enable effective and timely climate action. Yet these are the cities where many of the most severe climate impacts will be felt. Resolving this inequity is a fundamental international scientific challenge, as is growing the capacity to build a better evidence base.

Another question the IPCC needs to navigate is the boundary between science and politics in urban climate policy. During conference plenaries, the moderator — a former city mayor — excluded questions about specific political representatives’ stances on climate change according to apolitical IPCC rules. Yet questions about the effects on cities of neoliberalism were deemed permissible.

Urban scientists will require an especially nuanced framing of their research agenda if they are to address the very material politics of urban climate policy via theoretical abstraction alone.

Read more:
While nations play politics, cities and states are taking up the climate challenge

The conference also provided some memorable highlights. William Rees, the originator of ecological footprint theory, lambasted delegates for not adequately appreciating the absolute material limits to resource exploitation. And the youth delegates received a standing ovation as the cohort who will be grappling with urban climate effects long after their older peers have departed.

William Rees explains the origins of the ecological footprint.

An agenda for urban climate action

The conference released a research agenda. This outlines the urgent need for inclusive and socially transformative action on climate change, improved evidence and information to support climate responses, and new funding and finance mechanisms to make this possible. It’s a very high-level guide for climate and urban scientists seeking to better understand climate change impacts on cities.

The conference appears to have met the IPCC’s needs to compile and review a large volume of scientific and practice insight for its assessment reporting. Whether it will have a wider effect on climate policy and action in cities remains unclear.

The ConversationThe participating scientists and practitioners certainly shared a general commitment to advancing the urban climate agenda. But it remains uncertain whether methodical scientific processes will be timely enough to meet the accelerating and expanding demands of urgent urban climate action.

Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Building a ‘second nature’ into our cities: wildness, art and biophilic design

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The plantings of New York’s High Line Park were inspired by plants that had naturally colonised the disused railway viaduct.
Beyond my Ken/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Jordan Lacey, RMIT University

Biophilic design is beginning to boom. Witness its recent incorporation into the Melbourne Metro project and Sydney’s award-winning One Central Park, Chippendale. Given the increasing popularity of this urban design technique, it’s time to take a closer look at the meaning of nature and its introduction into our cities.

Read more:
Why ‘green cities’ need to become a deeply lived experience


Nature is good for our mental well-being, numerous scientific studies tell us. This flood of research begins in 1984 with E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, in which he hypothesises a gene that necessities our love of life and life-like processes. However, a genetic basis for biophilia has not been identified, and the value of a genetic argument for our attraction to nature has been questioned.

More recently, theorists have broadened the definition of biophilia to encompass the benefits of human-nature interaction. And it seems governments and industry are listening. Cities everywhere are embracing the change.

Read more:
Biophilic urbanism: how rooftop gardening soothes souls


I’ve spoken to numerous city dwellers over the years who tell me they find nature unsettling, if not terrifying. It’s mainly the isolation and silence they find overwhelming, particularly if they have spent their life in densely populated cities such as New York or Hong Kong. This sensation is captured by the term biophobia, a fear of nature.

While biophilia theorists acknowledge biophobia, it is rare to find this reflected in the work of biophilic designers whose work risks downplaying the complex ways in which we experience nature. After all, the feel-good message of biophilia is an easy sell. But if we can both love and fear nature we should ask ourselves: what is the source of these powerful emotional responses? And is the introduction of biota and abiota the only way we can elicit such experiences?

Art and nature

The philosopher Henri Lefebvre called the city a “second nature”. Given that every aspect of our cities, including ourselves, originated in what we refer to as nature this makes perfect sense. More obscurely, Lefebvre writes that in the creation of second nature we should produce “urban space, both as a product and as a work, in the sense in which art created works”.

To understand this we must consider the question: how does art make works? We might say that every artwork is unique in its making – no two artworks (assuming we don’t consider reproductions to be artworks) are the same. Similarly, nature’s creations are distinct: no two snowflakes are the same, every dawn is different etc.

In the creation of a second nature, Lefebvre challenges us to produce cities just as art produces work, so that our built environment might be as diverse as nature. Therefore, the production of a second nature is as much the responsibility of art as it is of design and architecture. If we are to create urban spaces rich in creative expression, then we should embrace this insight as much as possible.

There is scope for art in the expression of wildness.

A challenge to the creation of a second nature is to contend with the rules, regulations and controls of city bureaucracies that struggle to make room for creativity. Under these conditions, nature as introduced by biophilic designers is more likely to be applied as a functional agent, manicured and arranged, utilised for the production of more efficient workers and stress-free urban dwellers. But is it the purpose of nature to service such functional needs?

Read more:
Green for wellbeing – science tells us how to design urban spaces that heal us

Celebrating wildness

Wildness – a derivative of wilderness – is a term familiar to biophilia theorists. For instance, Timothy Beatley talks about the wildness of nature bursting through the cracks of the urban. New York’s High Line self-seeded landscape is a rare celebration of such growth, usually considered unkempt areas of the urban. Even Wilson, an epitome of scientific reductionism and mechanistic thought, speaks of a “spirit” interwoven between nature and ourselves, which must be preserved.

So, what is this spirit, this wildness we crave when we speak of nature? I would speculate that this wildness, or spirit, celebrated by biophilic theorists is the very same experience that sometimes terrifies our city dweller. It is the uncontrollable force of nature – always striving to exist, enabling it to appear everywhere and stirring our senses into states of wonder and awe.

In the creation of second nature, we should acknowledge that art has an equally powerful role to play in producing wildness. For instance, well-executed public art can be a source of wonder, imagination, contemplation and transformation. These are all experiences valued by biophilic practitioners.

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London integrates elements of public art and nature.
Groume/flickr, CC BY-SA

Read more:
Let cities speak: reclaiming a place for community with sounds

Towards second nature

We should encourage the growth of biophilic design in our cities. But if the nature we desire is, in fact, its expression as untamed wildness, then we should turn to art as much as we do to the elements of the natural world when designing and building our cities. Emerging infrastructure projects should consider the role of artists in directing human experience towards an urban wildness, which celebrates the creativity of nature.

The ConversationLet’s build cities that celebrate the wild, not just efficiency and productivity.

Jordan Lacey, Research Fellow, Architecture & Design, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fixing cities’ water crises could send our climate targets down the gurgler

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Water treatment plants can’t afford not to think about electricity too.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Peter Fisher, RMIT University

Two cities on opposing continents, Santiago
and Cape Town, have been brought to their knees by events at opposing ends of the climate spectrum: flood and drought.

The taps ran dry for Santiago’s 5 million inhabitants in early 2017, due to contamination of supplies by a massive rainfall event. And now Cape Town is heading towards “day zero” on May 11, after which residents will have to collect their drinking water from distribution points.

Read more:
Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?

It’s probably little comfort that Santiago and Cape Town aren’t alone. Many other cities around the world are grappling with impending water crises, including in Australia, where Perth and Melbourne both risk running short.

In many of these places governments have tried to hedge their bets by turning to increasingly expensive and energy-ravenous ways to ensure supply, such as desalination plants and bulk water transfers. These two elements have come together in Victoria with the pumping of desalinated water 150km from a treatment plant at Wonthaggi, on the coast, to the Cardinia Reservoir, which is 167m above sea level.

But while providing clean water is a non-negotiable necessity, these strategies also risk delivering a blowout in greenhouse emissions.

Water pressure

Climate change puts many new pressures on water quality. Besides the effects of floods and droughts, temperature increases can boost evaporation and promote the growth of toxic algae, while catchments can be contaminated by bushfires.

Canberra experienced a situation similar to Santiago in 2003, when a bushfire burned through 98% of the Cotter catchment, and then heavy rain a few months later washed huge amounts of contamination into the Bendora Dam. The ACT government had to commission a A$40 million membrane bioreactor treatment plant to restore water quality.

At the height of the Millennium Drought, household water savings and restrictions lowered volumes in sewers (by up to 40% in Brisbane, for example). The resulting increase in salt concentrations put extra pressure on wastewater treatment and reclamation..

The energy needed to pump, treat, distribute and heat water – and then to convey, pump, reclaim or discharge it as effluent, and to move biosolids – is often overlooked. Many blueprints for zero-carbon cities underplay or neglect entirely the carbon footprint of water supply and sewage treatment.

Some analyses only consider the energy footprint of domestic water heating, rather than the water sector as a whole – which is rather like trying to calculate the carbon footprint of the livestock industry by only looking at cooking.

Yet the growing challenge of delivering a reliable and safe water supply means that energy use is growing. The United States, for example, experienced a 39% increase in electricity usage for drinking water supply and treatment, and a 74% increase for wastewater treatment over the period 1996-2013, in spite of improvements in energy efficiency.

As climate change puts yet more pressure on water infrastructure, responses such as desalination plants and long-distance piping threaten to add even more to this energy burden. The water industry will increasingly be both a contributor to and a casualty of climate change.

How much energy individual utilities are actually using, either in Australia or worldwide, will vary widely according to the source of supply – such as rivers, groundwater or mountain dams – and whether gravity feeds are possible for freshwater and sewage (Melbourne shapes up well here, for example, whereas the Gold Coast doesn’t), as well as factors such as the level of treatment, and whether or not measures such as desalination or bulk transfers are in place.

All of this increases the water sector’s reliance on the electricity sector, which as we know has a pressing need to reduce its greenhouse emissions.

Desalination plants: great for providing water, not so great for saving electricity.
Moondyne/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

One option would be for water facilities to take themselves at least partly “off-grid”, by installing large amounts of solar panels, onsite wind turbines, or Tesla-style batteries (a few plants also harness biogas). Treatment plants are not exactly bereft of flat surfaces – such as roofs, grounds or even ponds – an opportunity seized upon by South Australian Water.

But this is a large undertaking, and the alternative – waiting for the grid itself to become largely based on renewables – will take a long time.

A 2012 study found large variations in pump efficiency between water facilities in different local authorities across Australia. Clearly there is untapped scope for collaboration and knowledge-sharing in our water sector, as is done in Spain and Germany, where water utilities have integrated with municipal waste services, and in the United States, where the water and power sectors have gone into partnership in many places.

The developing world

Climate change and population growth are seriously affecting cities in middle-band and developing countries, and the overall outlook is grim. Many places, such as Mexico City, already have serious water contamination problems. Indeed, in developing nations these problems are worsened by existing water quality issues. Only one-third of wastewater is treated to secondary standard in Asia, less than half of that in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a minute amount in Africa.

The transfer of know-how to these places is critical to reaching clean energy transitions. Nations making the energy transition – especially China, the world’s largest greenhouse emitter – need to take just as much care to ensure they avoid a carbon blowout as they transition to clean water too.

Just as in the electricity sector, carbon pricing can potentially provide a valuable incentive for utilities to improve their environmental performance. If utilities were monitored on the amount of electricity used per kilolitre of water processed, and then rewarded (or penalised) accordingly, it would encourage the entire sector to up its game, from water supply all the way through to sewage treatment.

Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry

Water is a must for city-dwellers – a fact that Cape Town’s officials are now nervously contemplating. It would be helpful for the industry to participate in the strategic planning and land-use debates that affect its energy budgets, and for its emissions (and emissions reductions) to be measured accurately.

In this way the water industry can become an influential participant in decarbonising our cities, rather than just a passive player.

The ConversationThis article is based on a journal article (in press) co-authored by David Smith, former water quality manager for South East Water, Melbourne.

Peter Fisher, Adjunct Professor, Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The world is watching the unfolding Cape Town water crisis with horror. On “Day Zero”, now predicted to be just ten weeks away, engineers will turn off the water supply. The South African city’s four million residents will have to queue at one of 200 water collection points.

Cape Town is the first major city to face such an extreme water crisis. There are so many unanswered questions. How will the sick or elderly people cope? How will people without a car collect their 25-litre daily ration? Pity those collecting water for a big family.

Read more:
Cape Town’s water crisis: driven by politics more than drought

The crisis is caused by a combination of factors. First of all, Cape Town has a very dry climate with annual rainfall of 515mm. Since 2015, it has been in a drought estimated to be a one-in-300-year event.

In recent years, the city’s population has grown rapidly – by 79% since 1995. Many have questioned what Cape Town has done to expand the city’s water supply to cater for the population growth and the lower rainfall.

Could this happen in Australia?

Australia’s largest cities have often struggled with drought. Water supplies may decline further due to climate change and uncertain future rainfall. With all capital cities expecting further population growth, this could cause water supply crises.

Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry

The situation in Cape Town has strong parallels with Perth in Australia. Perth is half the size of Cape Town, with two million residents, but has endured increasing water stress for nearly 50 years. From 1911 to 1974, the annual inflow to Perth’s water reservoirs averaged 338 gigalitres (GL) a year. Inflows have since shrunk by nearly 90% to just 42GL a year from 2010-2016.

To make matters worse, the Perth water storages also had to supply more people. Australia’s fourth-largest city had the fastest capital city population growth, 28.2%, from 2006-2016.

As a result, Perth became Australia’s first capital city unable to supply its residents from storage dams fed by rainfall and river flows. In 2015 the city faced a potentially disastrous situation. River inflows to Perth’s dams dwindled to 11.4GL for the year.

For its two million people, the inflows equated to only 15.6 litres per person per day! Yet in 2015/6 Perth residents consumed an average of nearly 350 litres each per day. This was the highest daily water consumption for Australia’s capitals. How was this achieved?

Tapping into desalination and groundwater

Perth has progressively sourced more and more of its supply from desalination and from groundwater extraction. This has been expensive and has been the topic of much debate. Perth is the only Australian capital to rely so heavily on desalination and groundwater for its water supply.

Volumes of water sourced for urban use in Australia’s major cities.
BOM, Water in Australia, p.52, National Water Account 2015, CC BY

Australia’s next most water-stressed capital is Adelaide. That city is supplementing its surface water storages with desalination and groundwater, as well as water “transferred” from the Murray River.

Australia’s other capital cities on the east coast have faced their own water supply crises. Their water storages dwindled to between 20% and 35% capacity in 2007. This triggered multiple actions to prevent a water crisis. Progressively tighter water restrictions were declared.

The major population centres (Brisbane/Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide) also built large desalination plants. The community reaction to the desalination plants was mixed. While some welcomed these, others question their costs and environmental impacts.

The desalination plants were expensive to build, consume vast quantities of electricity and are very expensive to run. They remain costly to maintain, even if they do not supply desalinated water. All residents pay higher water rates as a result of their existence.

Since then, rainfall in southeastern Australia has increased and water storages have refilled. The largest southeastern Australia desalination plants have been placed on “stand-by” mode. They will be switched on if and when the supply level drops.

Read more:
The role of water in Australia’s uncertain future

Investing in huge storage capacity

Many Australian cities also store very large volumes of water in very large water reservoirs. This allows them to continue to supply water through future extended periods of dry weather.

The three largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) have built very large dams indeed. For example, Brisbane has 2,220,150 ML storage capacity for its 2.2 million residents. That amounts to just over one million litres per resident when storages are full.

The ConversationIn comparison, Cape Town’s four million residents have a full storage capacity of 900,000 ML. That’s 225,000 litres per resident. Cape Town is constructing a number of small desalination plants while anxiously waiting for the onset of the region’s formerly regular winter rains.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Tourists are happy when taken off the beaten track, and smaller cities and towns can tap into that

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Yes, it’s a beautiful part of the world, but what sets Ballyhoura apart is the deliberate focus on a warm, local welcome.
stephendotcarter/flickr, CC BY

Elizabeth Turenko, Griffith University and Karine Dupré, Griffith University

Big cities and places with internationally renowned attractions have long been the most popular tourist destinations. Even today, Chinese tour companies in Australia, for instance, mostly focus on the biggest cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane – and landmarks like Uluru. But modern tourism is starting to take a slightly different path, regional travel, which creates economic benefits for towns and also leaves tourists with a better impression of a country.

Unpublished research undertaken by one of us (Elizabeth Turenko) while working as a tour leader in Ukraine in 2013-2014 confirmed this. Feedback from guests travelling on a group tour to Europe showed 80% preferred to visit “well-known” large cities, mostly capitals, when it came to choosing a tour.

Most of the time, though, these tourists were disappointed because the cities did not live up to their expectations. But, the study revealed, 75% of tourists enjoyed travelling to smaller towns when they did decide to visit them as part of a tour.

Big cities are losing their local flavour

There is no doubt the major cities are attractive and are still perceived as the essence of a country for many tourists. Yet the question remains: are these cities actually showing the “real country”? At a time of globalisation and global cities, to what extent do the larger cities still give tourists “the taste” of local culture.

Rural Tourism Marketing Group CEO Joanna Steele writes:

In the past five years tourism has seen some big changes. Large numbers of travellers have lost interest in cookie-cutter restaurants, lodging and attractions. Instead, they want local food, local attractions and connection to the lifestyles of local people.

The best places to experience that are often small local towns and villages. Here life hasn’t yet been adapted to tourist needs and the authenticity feels right.

Turenko also investigated the tourists’ preferences during a group bus tour in Europe. The main program involved a one-day visit to Amsterdam and a second day on which tourists could spend their free time in Amsterdam or go on a group trip to Volendam, a small town 20km away. The 90% of the group who opted for the town visit were very satisfied with their decision.

So, was there anything special about Volendam? Not really.

Much like many small towns in the Netherlands, Volendam has limited tourist attractions, these being mostly its built heritage (wooden buildings) and cultural assets (a museum and a cheese factory). When surveyed, the visitors explained they enjoyed the glimpse into the local culture and the routine life of the locals.

The tourists appreciated going to local shops and eating at local restaurants far away from standardised brands and international franchises. They felt they could feel the “soul” of the country.

What does Volendam have that Amsterdam doesn’t? It probably comes down to everyday local character.

At the time of this 2014 survey, cities and holidays at the coast were the main attractions for visitors to the Netherlands (36% and 22%, respectively). But interest in the countryside and touring the Netherlands (12% and 10%, respectively) has been increasing.

Finding a local tourism niche

Let’s be frank: smaller towns and villages have not been dormant, and many have jumped at the opportunities offered by tourism. We all have heard about farm holidays, horse riding, wine tasting tours, nature guided walks and so on.

Building on this, innovative regional tourism practices have been recognised worldwide for displaying a breadth of approaches and end products. A good example in Ireland is Ballyhoura, “a world where the little pleasures of sharing everyday things with the locals in Ballyhoura – talking with them, walking with them and sharing a joke – is possibly the greatest attraction of them all!”

Despite a lack of outstanding tourism resources, the area became a successful tourism destination thanks to a very personalised marketing method. Visitors even received a welcoming letter. The focus on “promoting a genuine rural experience and warm welcome” creates an incentive for more local start-up enterprises and for a co-operative, closing-the-loop process of quality control.

Longreach and Winton are Australian towns that have taken advantage of distinctive local histories and features such as old mines and fossil beds. Longreach has the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum, while Winton’s Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum offers “products” of the natural environment such as dinosaur stamps and bones.

Nowhere else has one: the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach, Queensland.
James Shrimpton/AAP

Yet all attempts have not been met with success. Many smaller towns are slowly disappearing in Australia. Main streets with closed shops and abandoned business are not uncommon.

The combination of lack of employment and population ageing and loss is a chicken-and-egg situation. The various levels of government are acutely aware of this, and tourism offers a possible way out of the dilemma facing these towns. Several recent initiatives have shown how tourism can contribute to the development of these areas when innovation, expertise and community participation are brought together.

Charleville in far west Queensland offers a great example of this, with the outback town working on making the most of its clear nighttime skies, far from the city lights. An extension to the Cosmos Centre and Observatory, funded by state and local governments, has boosted visitor numbers in just one year. The extension displays fun and serious facts about planets and life in space, enhanced by interactive media.

The ConversationFor the town of fewer than 4,000 people, the growth in tourism is like a nice spring rain after a long dry season. It’s another reminder of why rural tourism can be “the perfect small town business idea”.

Elizabeth Turenko, PhD Candidate, Griffith University and Karine Dupré, Associate Professor in Architecture, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The reality of living with 50℃ temperatures in our major cities

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Sydney is facing 50℃ summer days by 2040, new research says.
Andy/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Liz Hanna, Australian National University

Australia is hot. But future extreme hot weather will be worse still, with new research predicting that Sydney and Melbourne are on course for 50℃ summer days by the 2040s if high greenhouse emissions continue. That means that places such as Perth, Adelaide and various regional towns could conceivably hit that mark even sooner.

This trend is worrying, but not particularly surprising given the fact that Australia is setting hot weather records at 12 times the pace of cold ones. But it does call for an urgent response.

Most of us are used to hot weather, but temperatures of 50℃ present unprecedented challenges to our health, work, transport habits, leisure and exercise.

Read more: Health Check: how to exercise safely in the heat

Humans have an upper limit to heat tolerance, beyond which we suffer heat stress and even death. Death rates do climb on extremely cold days, but increase much more steeply on extremely hot ones. While cold weather can be tackled with warm clothes, avoiding heat stress requires access to fans or air conditioning, which is not always available.

The death rate in heat ramps up more rapidly than in cold.
Data from Li et al., Sci. Rep. (2016); Baccini et al., Epidemiol. (2008); McMichael et al., Int. J. Epidemiol. (2008), Author provided

Even with air conditioning, simply staying indoors is not necessarily an option. People must venture outside to commute and shop. Many essential services have to be done in the open air, such as essential services and maintaining public infrastructure.

Roughly 80% of the energy produced during muscular activity is heat, which must be dissipated to the environment, largely through perspiration. This process is far less effective in hot and humid conditions, and as a result the body’s core temperature begins to climb.

We can cope with increased temperatures for short periods – up to about half an hour – particularly those people who are fit, well hydrated and used to hot conditions. But if body temperature breaches 40-42℃ for an extended time, heat stress and death are likely. In hot enough weather, even going for a walk can be deadly.

Air conditioning may not save lives

We expect air conditioning to take the strain, but may not realise just how much strain is involved. Shade temperatures of 50℃ mean that direct sunlight can raise the temperature to 60℃ or 70℃. Bringing that back to a comfortable 22℃ or even a warm 27℃ is not always possible and requires a lot of energy – putting serious strain on the electricity grid.

Electricity transmission systems are inherently vulnerable to extreme heat. This means they can potentially fail simply due to the weather, let alone the increased demand on the grid from power consumers.

Power cuts can cause chaos, including the disruption to traffic signals on roads that may already be made less safe as their surfaces soften in the heat. Interruptions to essential services such as power and transport hamper access to lifesaving health care.

Myopic planning

It’s a dangerous game to use past extremes as a benchmark when planning for the future. The new research shows that our climate future will be very different from the past.

Melbourne’s 2014 heatwave triggered a surge in demand for ambulances that greatly exceeded the number available. Many of those in distress waited hours for help, and the death toll was estimated at 203.

Just last month, parts of New South Wales and Victoria experienced temperatures 16 degrees warmer than the September average, and 2017 is tracking as the world’s second-warmest year on record.

Preparing ourselves

Last year, the Australian Summit on Extreme Heat and Health warned that the health sector is underprepared to face existing heat extremes.

The health sector is concerned about Australia’s slow progress and is responding with the launch of a national strategy for climate, health and well-being. Reinstating climate and health research, health workforce training and health promotion are key recommendations.

There is much more to be done, and the prospect of major cities sweltering through 50℃ days escalates the urgency.

Read more: Climate policy needs a new lens: health and well-being

Two key messages arise from this. The first is that Australia urgently needs to adapt to the extra warming. Heat-wise communities (or “heat-safe communities” in some states) – where people understand the risks, protect themselves and look after each other – are vital to limit harm from heat exposure. The health sector must have the resources to respond to those who succumb. Research, training and health promotion are central.

The second message is that nations across the world need to improve their efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions, so as to meet the Paris climate goal of holding global warming to 1.5℃.

The ConversationIf we can do that, we can stave off some of the worst impacts. We have been warned.

Liz Hanna, Honorary Senior Fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


This is why we cannot rely on cities alone to tackle climate change

Brendan F.D. Barrett, RMIT University and Andrew DeWit, Rikkyo University

A lot of faith is vested in cities to tackle climate change, and with good reason. A day after the June 1 declaration that the US would exit the Paris Agreement, 82 American “climate mayors” committed to upholding the accord.

By August 4, when the US gave formal notice of its withdrawal, there were 372 “climate mayors” representing 67 million Americans.

In Australia, too, national intransigence has led to greater expectations of local actions. The Climate Council’s July report declares that deep cuts in cities’ greenhouse gas emissions can achieve 70% of Australia’s Paris goals.

The report notes that a majority of Australian cities have adopted climate policies. Many are committed to 100% renewable energy or zero emissions. One of the report’s authors argues that, even without national leadership, Australian cities can “just get on with the job of implementing climate policies”.

Many European cities have ambitious emission-reduction targets. Copenhagen plans to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Stockholm aims to be fossil-fuel-free by 2040.

So, at first glance, cities do appear to be leading the way.

A word of caution

We support local decarbonisation and the desire for cities to be progressive actors. Yet there are ample grounds to be dubious about cities’ ability to deliver on their commitments.

Sam Brooks, former director of the District of Columbia’s Energy Division, has laid out sobering evidence on the reality of climate action in US cities.

Brooks supports stronger local action rather than “press releases” and “mindless cheerleading”. He shows that most emission cuts in US cities can be attributed to state and federal initiatives such as renewable portfolio standards or national fuel-efficiency rules.


America’s narrative of climate-friendly cities relies heavily on California’s leadership to make it credible.

By May 2015, California had built the Under2 Coalition of cities, states and countries committed to keeping the global temperature increase below 2°C. California Governor Jerry Brown was prepared for the June 1 White House announcement, quickly detailing why it was “insane”. Days later Brown signed a deal between China and his state to collaborate on cutting emissions.

California’s activism sets a benchmark. But Brooks details how New York, Boston, Washington DC and other “frequently lauded cities” often do not use the powers they have.

No US city reports its electricity consumption more than annually. Many do not report it at all. Poor monitoring is a key reason they have not cut consumption, in spite of enormous scope for efficiency.

Cities have not added much to national trends

It isn’t just American cities falling short, as Benjamin Barber’s new book, Cool Cities makes clear.

Like Brooks, Barber championed urban action against global warming (he died in April 2017). Yet he looked past the hype to point out shortcomings in the mitigation measures of such exemplary cities as London and Oslo.

London’s stated goal is to cut emissions by 60% by 2040. It seems likely to fail, with blame falling on rapid population growth and inadequate policies in the building sector.

Oslo is committed to a 100% cut in emissions by 2050. But its emissions have risen from 1.2 million tonnes in 1991 to 1.4 million tonnes in 2014. One complication is that oil and gas production comprise 22% of the Norwegian economy. The nation’s emissions are up 4.2% since 1990.

Even the progress of climate superstar cities such as Copenhagen, Stockholm and Berlin is, on close examination, subject to important caveats.

Copenhagen makes much of having cut emissions 21% by 2011 from 2005 levels. Yet the city admits that 63% of its goal of becoming carbon-neutral relies on buying carbon offsets for its emissions.

National policy is a crucial context for urban action. For instance, Copenhagen has benefited greatly from a 27% fall in Denmark’s emissions between 1990 and 2015. Unfortunately, Danish emissions are expected to increase after 2020 without new policies.

Stockholm has cut emissions by around 37% between 1990 and 2015. This is mainly a result of changes to building heating – transport emissions have barely changed.

As in Copenhagen, Stockholm’s achievements rely greatly on a national target –
net-zero emissions by 2045 – backed by a robust policy framework.

As for Berlin, its goal is an 85% cut in emissions by 2050, compared to 1990. By 2013 the city had cut emissions by about one-third. Yet most recent data indicate that emissions have begun to rise slightly. Berlin is at risk of achieving only half of its mid-term goal of a 40% cut by 2020.

Berlin is not responsible for a national policy that remains lax on coal and unduly favours automobiles, the source of 18% of German emissions. But civic leaders in Berlin could do more to nudge a car-centred culture towards sustainability.

What must cities do?

The urgency of real action is clear from the IEA’s 2016 report on sustainable urban energy systems. It warns that business as usual in cities could mean emissions increase by 50% by 2050.

The IEA notes that 90% of the growth in primary energy demand is in non-OECD countries. At the same time, climate science tells us deep emissions cuts must begin by 2020. We have to accelerate decarbonisation, which means demanding greater ambition and transparency from cities. The following steps need to be taken:

  1. Every city should have accurate, timely and transparent data on their performance across a range of indicators. These include emissions, electricity consumption, energy efficiency and renewable energy availability.

  2. We need more robust comparative frameworks to make sense of the data. The 2014 Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories was a valuable start, but has to be expanded.

  3. Cities should be more global when calculating their emissions. At present, they tally up emissions from their own territory and production, leaving out emissions from consumption of traded goods and (often) aviation. The differences can be significant. Were Copenhagen’s emissions measured on a consumption basis, the total would be four to five times higher.

  4. Cities need to differentiate between emission cuts resulting directly from their own actions and those derived from state or national programs. We need to see what cities themselves are doing.

  5. Cities too often advocate climate neutrality rather than zero emissions. The more a city relies on credits for offsets elsewhere, the greater the risk of failing to cut actual emissions within the city.

  6. There should be less cheerleading all around. City mayors need to lobby their state and federal counterparts to ensure co-ordinated action at all levels. And citizens must throw out mayors – not to mention regional and national leaders – who don’t accept the urgency of climate mitigation.

The ConversationSadly, many cities are dangerously complacent about the need for speed in decarbonisation. No press release can obscure the fact that time is not on our side.

Brendan F.D. Barrett, Senior Lecturer, Program Manager, Masters of International Urban and Environmental Management, RMIT University and Andrew DeWit, Professor, School of Policy Studies, Rikkyo University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.