Last week San Francisco became the latest city to ban natural gas in new buildings. The legislation will see all new construction, other than restaurants, use electric power only from June 2021, to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
San Francisco has now joined other US cities in banning natural gas in new homes. The move is in stark contrast to the direction of energy policy in Australia, where the Morrison government seems stuck in reverse: spruiking a gas-led economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Natural gas provides about 26% of energy consumed in Australia — but it’s clearly on the way out. It’s time for a serious rethink on the way many of us cook and heat our homes.
San Francisco is rapidly increasing renewable-powered electricity to meet its target of 100% clean energy by 2030. Currently, renewables power 70% of the city’s electricity.
The ban on gas came shortly after San Francisco’s mayor London Breed announced all commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet must run on 100% renewable electricity by 2022.
Buildings are particularly in focus because 44% of San Franciscos’ citywide emissions come from the building sector alone.
Following this, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the ban on gas in buildings. They cited the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, and recognised that natural gas is a major source of indoor air pollution, leading to improved public health outcomes.
From January 1, 2021, no new building permits will be issued unless constructing an “All-Electric Building”. This means installation of natural gas piping systems, fixtures and/or infrastructure will be banned, unless it is a commercial food service establishment.
In the shift to zero-emissions economies, transitioning our power grids to renewable energy has been the subject of much focus. But buildings produce 25% of Australia’s emissions, and the sector must also do some heavy lifting.
A report by the Grattan Institute this week recommended a moratorium on new household gas connections, similar to what’s been imposed in San Francisco.
The report said natural gas will inevitably decline as an energy source for industry and homes in Australia. This is partly due to economics — as most low-cost gas on Australia’s east coast has been burnt.
There’s also an environmental imperative, because Australia must slash its fossil fuel emissions to address climate change.
While acknowledging natural gas is widely used in Australian homes, the report said “this must change in coming years”. It went on:
This will be confronting for many people, because changing the cooktops on which many of us make dinner is more personal than switching from fossil fuel to renewable electricity.
The report said space heating is by far the largest use of gas by Australian households, at about 60%. In the cold climates of Victoria and the ACT, many homes have central gas heaters. Homes in these jurisdictions use much more gas than other states.
By contrast, all-electric homes with efficient appliances produce fewer emissions than homes with gas, the report said.
Australia’s states and territories have much work to do if they hope to decarbonise our building sector, including reducing the use of gas in homes.
In 2019, Australia’s federal and state energy ministers committed to a national plan towards zero-carbon buildings for Australia. The measures included “energy smart” buildings with on-site renewable energy generation and storage and, eventually, green hydrogen to replace gas.
The plan also involved better disclosure of a building’s energy performance. To date, Australia’s states and territories have largely focused on voluntary green energy rating tools, such as the National Australian Built Environment Rating System. This measures factors such as energy efficiency, water usage and waste management in existing buildings.
The National Construction Code requires mandatory compliance with energy efficiency standards for new buildings. However, the code takes a technology neutral approach and does not require buildings to install zero-carbon energy “in the absence of an explicit energy policy commitment by governments regarding the future use of gas”.
An estimated 200,000 new homes are built in Australia each year. This represents an opportunity for states and territories to create mandatory clean energy requirements while reaching their respective net-zero emissions climate targets.
Under a gas ban, the use of zero-carbon energy sources in buildings would increase, similar to San Francisco. This has been recognised by Environment Victoria, which notes
A simple first step […] to start reducing Victoria’s dependence on gas is banning gas connections for new homes.
Creating incentives for alternatives to gas may be another approach, such as offering rebates for homes that switch to electrical appliances. The ACT is actively encouraging consumers to transition from gas.
Banning gas in buildings could be an economically sensible move. As the Grattan Report found, “households that move into a new all-electric house with efficient appliances will save money compared to an equivalent dual-fuel house”.
Meanwhile, ARENA confirmed electricity from solar and wind provide the lowest levelised cost of electricity, due to the increasing cost of east coast gas in Australia.
Future-proofing new buildings will require extensive work, let alone replacing exiting gas inputs and fixtures in existing buildings. Yet efficient electric appliances can save the average NSW homeowner around A$400 a year.
Learning to live sustainability, and becoming resilient in the face of climate change, is well worth the cost and effort.
Recently, a suite of our major gas importers — China, South Korea and Japan — all pledged to reach net-zero emissions by either 2050 or 2060. This will leave our export-focused gas industry possibly turning to the domestic market for new gas hookups.
The window to address dangerous climate change is fast closing. We must urgently seek alternatives to burning fossil fuels, and there’s no better place to start that change than in our own homes.
The link below is to an article that looks at discovering new flowering plant species while bushwalking in Australia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains references to deceased people.
I am a child of the Anthropocene, born in 1953. I have lived in a period of history also known as the “Great Acceleration” as huge negative change unfolded.
While contemplating these changes, I have sensed, within humanity, a profound sense of emotional isolation. To help overcome the solitude, I have created the idea of sumbiotude, thinking and working in companionship with others, to reconnect to life.
Being alive in this particular era, I have had the privilege of living through the rapid transition from a focus on that which is “obvious to the senses” to our new ways of rendering the invisible, visible.
I also accept that reality is complex and independent of us and that new insights into nature can come via acts of scientific and conceptual discovery. However, I am always aware that I am walking in the footsteps of the late Big Bill Neidjie of Arnhem Land when in Gagudju Man he suggests:
We walk on earth,
We look after,
like rainbow sitting on top.
But something underneath,
under the ground.
We don’t know.
You don’t know.
At a time of massive biophysical change (heatwaves, wildfire, floods, pandemics), we need to expand our language to understand these changes and to be able to share the emotional upheavals they engender.
I’ve created a “sumbiography” (from the Greek, sumbios, which means living together) to investigate the union of elements in nature and culture that have symbiotically cohered into a view about life – a philosophy of my own.
For others, undertaking a sumbiography has the potential to help them find their own particular view of their emotional connection – or the lack of it – to the Earth.
A sumbiography can reveal just what kind of emotional compass we have with respect to our personal relationship to this living planet.
As a philosopher, my response to the encounter with the open cut coal mines of the desolated Upper Hunter region of NSW was to rethink the emotions of attachment to and abandonment of a place that is loved, and to find the right way to express my feelings.
As there was nothing in the English language to help me, I decided to create my own concept – a neologism – to adequately describe the emotional distress at the loss of one’s endemic sense of place.
It took the combination of a lifetime of teaching, thinking and a creative effort shared with my wife, Jillian, before the concept of “solastalgia” entered the world in 2003.
The age of solastalgia
Solastalgia, the distressing lived experience of negative environmental change, arose from understanding that the positive side of the lived experience of Earth emotions had to have negative equivalents. Solastalgia marked the beginning of my journey of mental-landscape discovery.
That such a concept did not already exist in the English language was, to me, a sign of just how deeply alienated from our home we – as an Earth-destroying, or “terraphthoric”, culture – had become.
My mother played a huge part in my rediscovery and naming of different, more positive, psychoterratic emotions.
In her late seventies, she was struggling: the legacy of tuberculosis had left her breathless and she was having trouble both retaining her independence and continuing as a volunteer guide at Kings Park in Perth. I shopped for her and we ate together most nights.
After a year where I lived close by, she suffered a big, bloody and lonely fall. Following her hospitalisation and recovery, I took her to live with me in the village of Jarrahdale in the Perth Hills.
Our house and block, “Birdland”, had jarrah trees on it and ground orchids; it was visited by kangaroos, possums, quenda (southern brown bandicoot) and many different kinds of birds.
My mother and I thrived there. She reconnected with her own endemic sense of place, and I thinking about the concepts and the associated words needed to account for that sense of reconnection and good Earth emotions.
If the mine-scape of the Upper Hunter and the homogeneity of the city of Perth represented the solastalgic Anthropocene to me, Jarrahdale had offered a lifeline to a different lifestyle and worldview – one where co-existence with non-human life went beyond companion and domesticated animals and a limited number of edible plants.
In loving each other as kin, my mother and I also shared a love of the endemic (endemophilia). This was made manifest in the moments when spider, donkey, enamel or bee orchids were found with almost the same excitement as very first encounters.
These five years with my mother added richness to my sumbiography.
As an adult, I could reunite with my past and feel, beyond solastalgia, positive emotional states residing in me that were also without the corresponding concepts, words and ideas in my language.
While based at Murdoch University, I began a systematic quest to negate solastalgia and all the other negative Earth emotions to add something new, something “terranascient” or Earth-creating that could join the dialectic of the psychoterratic.
In 2011, I created the meme of the Symbiocene, which I defined as the next era in human and Earth history where reintegration of the Anthropos (humans) with the Sumbios (symbiotic life) was completed.
In 2013, aged 84, my mother died. Half her ashes were scattered carefully into the Kings Park bush around a huge old gnarly log from a long-dead jarrah tree.
Ground orchids abounded in this place, so too the red and green kangaroo paws. She deserved a presence in that park, as her spirit had graced it for more than 20 years. I imagine she became a copse of pink enamel orchids, glistening in the Perth spring sun.
If humans are kind to the Earth, some of her will also become a new jarrah tree, auburn hair all fiery in its wood grain.
For the great bulk of human existence, symbiosis was typical of our relationship to the rest of nature, and I wanted to regain the property of what the Greeks called sumbiosis or “companionship”.
If I live to be 100 years of age, it is my hope that my life will come to exemplify a neologism that is sumbiotude, or the state of living together.
Sumbiotude is the exact opposite of solitude: instead of contemplating life in isolation, sumbiotude involves contemplation and completion of a lifespan with the loving companionship of humans and non-humans.
I will also be happy if my creative, conceptual work can help Generation Symbiocene – which includes my own children, my step-grandchildren and my five-year-old granddaughter – live in a world where positive Earth emotions prevail.
This is an edited extract republished with permission from GriffithReview68: Getting On (Text), ed Ashley Hay griffithreview.com
After I found my first peacock spider in the wild in 2016, I was hooked. Three years later, I was travelling across Australia on a month-long expedition to document and name new species of peacock spiders.
Peacock spiders are a unique group of tiny, colourful, dancing spiders native to Australia. They’re roughly between 2.5 and 6 millimetres, depending on the species. Adult male peacock spiders are usually colourful, while female and juvenile peacock spiders are usually dull brown or grey.
Like peacocks, the mature male peacock spiders display their vibrant colours in elegant courtship displays to impress females. They often elevate and wave their third pair of legs and lift their brilliantly coloured abdomens – like dancing.
Up until 2011, there were only seven known species of them. But since then, the rate of scientific discovery has skyrocketed with upwards of 80 species being discovered in the last decade.
Thanks to my trip across Australia and the help from citizen scientists, I’ve recently scientifically described and named seven more species from Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria. This brings the total number of peacock spider species known to science up to 86.
Citizen scientists – other peacock spider enthusiasts – shared photographs and locations of potentially undocumented species with me. I pulled these together to create a list of places in Australia to visit.
I usually find spider hunting to be a relaxing pastime, but this trip was incredibly stressful (albeit amazing).
The thing about peacock spiders is they’re mainly active during spring, which is when they breed. Colourful adult males are difficult – if not impossible – to find at other times of year, as they usually die shortly after the mating season. This meant I had a very short window to find what I needed to, or I had to wait another year.
Even when they’re active, they can be difficult to come across unless weather conditions are ideal. Not too cold. Not too rainy. Not too hot. Not too sunny. Not too shady. Not too windy. As you can imagine, it’s largely a game of luck.
I arrived in Perth, picked up my hire car and bought a foam mattress that fitted in the back of my car – my bed for half of the trip. I stocked up on tinned food, bread and water, and I headed north in search of these tiny eight-legged gems.
My first destination: Jurien Bay. I spent the whole day under the hot sun searching for a peculiar, scientifically unknown species that Western Australian photographer Su RamMohan had sent me photographs of. I was in the exact spot it had been photographed, but I just couldn’t find it!
The sun began to lower and I was using up precious time. I made what I now believe was the right decision and abandoned the Jurien Bay species for another time.
I spent days travelling between dramatic coastal landscapes, the rugged inland outback, and old, mysterious woodlands.
I hunted tirelessly with my eyes fixed on the ground searching for movement. In a massive change of luck from the beginning of my trip, it seemed conditions were (mostly) on my side.
With the much-appreciated help of some of my field companions from the University of Hamburg and volunteers from the public, a total of five new species were discovered and scientifically named from Western Australia.
Two days after returning from Western Australia, I headed to the Little Desert National Park in Victoria on a Bush Blitz expedition, joined by several of my colleagues from Museums Victoria.
I’d thought the landscape’s harsh, dry conditions were unsuitable for peacock spiders, as most described species are known to live in temperate regions.
To my surprise, we found a massive diversity of them, including two species with a bigger range than we thought, and the discovery of another species unknown to science.
This is the first time two known species – Maratus robinsoni and Maratus vultus – had been found in Victoria. Previously, they had only been known to live in eastern New South Wales and southern Western Australia respectively.
Our findings suggest other known species may have much bigger geographic ranges than we previously thought, and may occur in a much larger variety of habitats.
And our discovery of the unknown species (Maratus inaquosus), along with another collected by another wildlife photographer Nick Volpe from South Australia (Maratus volpei) brought the tally of discoveries to seven.
Writing scientific descriptions, documenting, and naming species is a crucial part in conserving our wildlife.
With global extinction rates at an unprecedented high, species conservation is more important than ever. But the only way we can know if we’re losing species is to show and understand they exist in the first place.
These names allow us to communicate important information about these animals to other scientists, as well as to build legislation around them in the case there are risks to their conservation status.
I plan on visiting some more remote parts of Australia in hopes of finding more new peacock spider species. I strongly suspect there’s more work to be done, and more peacock spiders to discover.
Finding a species that’s entirely new to science is always exciting, and so we were delighted to be a part of the discovery of two new sixgill sawsharks (called Pliotrema kajae and Pliotrema annae) off the coast of East Africa.
We know very little about sawsharks. Until now, only one sixgill species (Pliotrema warreni) was recognised. But we know sawsharks are carnivores, living on a diet of fish, crustaceans and squid. They use their serrated snouts to kill their prey and, with quick side-to-side slashes, break them up into bite-sized chunks.
Sawsharks look similar to sawfish (which are actually rays), but they are much smaller. Sawsharks grow to around 1.5 metres in length, compared to 7 metres for a sawfish and they also have barbels (fish “whiskers”), which sawfish lack. Sawsharks have gills on the side of their heads, whereas sawfish have them on the underside of their bodies.
Together with our colleagues, we discovered these two new sawsharks while researching small-scale fisheries that were operating off the coasts of Madagascar and Zanzibar. While the discovery of these extraordinary and interesting sharks is a wonder in itself, it also highlights how much is still unknown about biodiversity in coastal waters around the world, and how vulnerable it may be to poorly monitored and managed fisheries.
Despite what their name might suggest, small-scale fisheries employ around 95% of the world’s fishers and are an incredibly important source of food and money, particularly in tropical developing countries. These fisheries usually operate close to the coast in some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, such as coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass beds.
For most small-scale fisheries, there is very little information available about their fishing effort – that is, how many fishers there are, and where, when and how they fish, as well as exactly what they catch. Without this, it’s very difficult for governments to develop management programmes that can ensure sustainable fishing and protect the ecosystems and livelihoods of the fishers and the communities that depend on them.
While the small-scale fisheries of East Africa and the nearby islands are not well documented, we do know that there are at least half a million small-scale fishers using upwards of 150,000 boats. That’s a lot of fishing. While each fisher and boat may not catch that many fish each day, with so many operating, it really starts to add up. Many use nets – either driftnets floating at the surface or gillnets, which are anchored close to the sea floor. Both are cheap but not very selective with what they catch. Some use longlines, which are effective at catching big fish, including sharks and rays.
In 2019, our team reported that catch records were massively underreporting the number of sharks and rays caught in East Africa and the nearby islands. With the discovery of two new species here – a global hotspot for shark and ray biodiversity – the need to properly assess the impact of small-scale fisheries on marine life is even more urgent.
How many other unidentified sharks and other species are commonly caught in these fisheries? There is a real risk of species going extinct before they’re even discovered.
Efforts to monitor and manage fisheries in this region, and globally, must be expanded to prevent biodiversity loss and to develop sustainable fisheries. There are simple methods available that can work on small boats where monitoring is currently absent, including using cameras to document what’s caught.
The discovery of two new sixgill sawsharks also demonstrates the value of scientists working with local communities. Without the participation of fishers we may never have found these animals. From simple assessments all the way through to developing methods to alter catches and manage fisheries, it’s our goal to make fisheries sustainable and preserve the long-term future of species like these sawsharks, the ecosystems they live in and the communities that rely on them for generations to come.
The slogan “What you can measure, you can manage” has become a guiding principle for local climate action. There’s an accounting standard made for this purpose: the Global Protocol for Community-scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories. Free online CO₂ emissions snapshots for municipalities in Australia, recently launched by Ironbark Sustainability and Beyond Zero Emissions, make the protocol more accessible than ever for local governments and communities that want to know what their emissions are, and what to do about them.
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol provides a way to measure local greenhouse gas emissions and removals. It is designed to record two elements of local emissions:
The method creates a consistent approach to measure emissions in different localities. It lets local governments and communities aggregate their individual commitments to reduce emissions.
The protocol is aligned with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) standards that guide countries’ greenhouse gas inventories. Local accounts can then be nested within national inventories without double counting.
By measuring greenhouse gas emissions at the local scale, the protocol supports local governments and communities as important actors in climate governance. Adding local efforts together gives them a stronger voice in national and international arenas. This political pressure is especially important given the inadequacy of countries’ commitments to meet the Paris Agreement targets.
Even though the protocol adds weight to local climate commitments, translating these commitments into action can be challenging. Consistent with IPCC standards, the protocol frames greenhouse gases in two important ways.
First, greenhouse gases are measured according to defined “sectors”. These include stationary energy, transportation, waste, industrial processes and product use, and agriculture, forestry and other land uses. These categories are shorthand for the complex and extended systems of infrastructure, resource flows and human activities that produce greenhouse gases.
Municipal boundaries often align poorly with these systems. The data on activity needed to calculate emissions are often patchy or misaligned at the local scale. Local governments and communities rarely have the authority to intervene directly and change these larger systems.
So although the protocol helps to direct attention to local activities and systems that produce emissions, changing those systems and activities is usually more complex.
Second, greenhouse gas emissions are translated, through a set of simple equations established by the IPCC, into a “carbon dioxide equivalent”. These equations are the basis for comparing, aggregating and exchanging greenhouse gas emissions and removals of different types, at different times and in different places.
These calculations are entangled with the claim that “a ton of carbon is everywhere the same”. It forms the basis for regulated and voluntary markets in carbon trading.
However, there are problems with this assumed interchangeability. As Larry Lohmann argues:
While carbon trading encourages ingenuity in inventing measurable ‘equivalences’ between emissions of different types in different places, it does not select for innovations that can initiate or sustain a historical trajectory away from fossil fuels […]
In sum, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol supports the legitimacy and strengthens the voice of local governments and communities in global climate governance.
At the same time, defining emissions by territory and sector does not fully reflect the complexity of the infrastructure systems and human activities that cause emissions. In particular, the protocol can reinforce a framing of carbon as an exchangeable commodity. This poses the risk that choices about whether to reduce or offset emissions could be skewed.
Without suggesting there is no place for territorial carbon accounts, it is important to recognise that how we measure emissions shapes possibilities for how we might manage them.
Alternative approaches such as consumption-based accounts measure greenhouse gas emissions from what is consumed by an individual or within a territory. This draws attention to choices about what we eat and what we buy, and to the social norms and systems of wealth, which are harder to see in territorial accounts.
The key point is that no single measure of greenhouse gases can offer a definitive view. As a complement to the protocol, an additional question for local governments and communities to ask when trying to manage greenhouse gases is: “Where do we have the power to effect change, and why does that change matter to us?”
The horrors of war are all too familiar: lives lost, homes destroyed, entire communities forced to flee. Yet as time passes, places that once were sites of death and destruction can become peaceful natural refuges.
One of the deadliest battles fought on U.S. soil, for example, was the Battle of Gettysburg. Tens of thousands of men were killed or wounded in three days of fighting. Over 150 years later, millions of visitors have toured Gettysburg Battlefield.
Across the U.S., 25 national battlefield and military parks have been established to protect battlefield landscapes and memorialize the past. Increasingly, visitors to these sites are attracted as much by their natural beauty as their historical legacy.
Our new book, “Collateral Values: The Natural Capital Created by Landscapes of War,” describes the benefits to society when healthy natural habitats develop on former battlefields and other military landscapes, such as bases and security zones. Environmental scientist Gary Machlis coined the phrase “collateral values” – a spin on the military expression “collateral damage” – to describe the largely unintended and positive consequences of protecting these lands.
These benefits include opportunities for picnicking, hiking and bird watching. More importantly, former military lands can support wildlife conservation, reduce water and air pollution, enhance pollination of natural and agricultural areas and help regulate a warming climate.
In addition to federally protected sites, hundreds of battlefields in the U.S. are preserved by states, local governments and nonprofits like the American Battlefield Trust. Collectively, these sites represent an important contribution to the nation’s public lands.
Preserved battlefields include old fort sites, like the 33 that have been designated public lands in Oklahoma and Texas, marking wars fought between European settlers and Native Americans. They also include coastal defense forts built in the first half of the 1800s along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards. While some battlefield parks are quite large, others are small sites in urban settings.
Internationally, the United Kingdom has an active program to preserve its battlefields, some centuries old. Other Western European countries have preserved World War I and World War II battlefields.
For example, one of the most brutal battles of WWI was fought in Verdun, France. That trench warfare site is now 25,000 acres of regenerated forest that attracts more than a quarter-million visitors annually. It protects a biologically rich landscape, including wetlands, orchids, birds, bats, newts, frogs, toads, insects, mushrooms and “survivor trees” that still bear scars of war.
The largest, most ambitious plan in Europe for transforming a military border centers on the Iron Curtain – a line of guard towers, walls, minefields and fences that stretched for thousands of miles, from Norway’s border with the Soviet Union above the Arctic Circle down to the Mediterranean coastal border between Greece and Albania.
Communist Russia and its allies claimed they had to build a system of military barriers to defend against the NATO alliance of Western European countries and the U.S. But keeping their own citizens in was equally as important. Hundreds died trying to escape.
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 ended the Cold War, and the utility of the Iron Curtain and associated military facilities. With the fall of the Berlin Wall that divided the city into halves, a reunified Germany began to develop its section of the Iron Curtain into a system of conservation areas and nature trails, known as the European Green Belt initiative.
One great challenge of this project was balancing the values of conserving nature while preserving the tragic historical legacy of conflict. Most efforts to build collateral values on former landscapes must grapple with this trade-off.
Other militarized borders around the globe are also becoming conservation sites. For example, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea has been strictly off-limits for people for decades, allowing it to grow into the most important, albeit unofficial, biodiversity reserve on the Korean peninsula.
Similarly, forests have grown up in the extensive minefield created along the Iran-Iraq border during those nations’ war in the 1980s. These forests support Asian leopards and other rare wildlife species. There are proposals to formally protect them as nature reserves.
The ecosystems of protected areas, such as parks and preserves, provide vital benefits for humans and nature. Unfortunately, the world is in danger of losing at least one-third of its protected areas to development and other threats. Recognizing the collateral values that have developed on protected former battlefields and border zones may help reduce degradation and loss of these lands.
One recent study estimates that nearly 1 million square miles – 5% of the Earth’s dry land surface – is currently designated as military training areas. These zones could be protected with relatively little investment when combined with social, cultural and political goals, such as memorializing historical events, and could become ecologically valuable places.
No one should forget the brutality of the conflicts that gave rise to these landscapes. However, given the scale of threats to natural habitats around the world, conservationists cannot ignore opportunities to cultivate and preserve natural places – even those that arise from the horrors of war.
This article has been updated to provide the correct location of Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.
The impacts of climate change on weather, sea levels, food and water supplies should be seen as an investment opportunity for our cities, says global investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.
In a report out last month the bank says cities need to adapt to become more resilient to climate change and this could “drive one of the largest infrastructure build-outs in history”.
The bank says cities will be on the frontline of any need to adapt because they are home to more than half the world’s population and generate roughly 80% of global GDP.
The report comes at a time when scepticism and wait-and-see approaches are still permeating the debate on climate action globally. The discussion on reducing emissions is dogged by disagreement on targets and actions to be undertaken.
On the contrary, less emphasis has been placed on adapting to global warming, the consequences of which will play out for decades to come even if we meet the goals of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Goldman Sachs has already said it acknowledges the scientific consensus that climate change is a reality and human activities are responsible for increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere.
Much global attention has focused so far on the need for climate change mitigation and the reduction of CO₂ emissions. But the bank’s latest report addresses the urban adaptation strategies that are urgently required:
Greater resilience will likely require extensive urban planning, with investments in coastal protections, climate-resilient construction, more robust infrastructure, upgraded water and waste-management systems, energy resilience and stronger communications and transportation systems.
It acknowledges mitigation measures are essential to reduce global temperature in the medium and long term. But it argues we need to act immediately to minimise the current and future effects of climate change in urban areas.
The question is, why would a bank endorse such a vision?
The bank’s report is a collection of data and analysis on climate change from well-known sources, such as the IPCC, and a detailed list of expected impacts on cities.
For example, higher temperatures, more frequent and intense storms, and rising sea levels could affect economic activity, damage infrastructure and harm vulnerable residents.
Does the report represent a last call to brace for impact? Or is a more nuanced and somehow optimistic view of the process emerging?
In reality, it’s not surprising this call is coming from an international financial institution such as Golden Sachs. This report needs be read in parallel with the environmental policy framework of the bank which is its “commitment to addressing critical environmental issues”.
The latest report identifies urban adaptation responses and initiatives as market solutions and financial opportunities. It clearly points out where investments should be addressed.
The directions outlined range over infrastructural initiatives to measures that require financial investment. Our cities need better coastal protection, more resilient buildings and open spaces, sustainable water and waste management, and upgraded transport systems.
There is a positive takeaway emerging from the bank’s viewpoint which is a pragmatic call for action.
This could reinstate a more optimistic view of climate change. It could overcome the wait-and-see approach by moving the discussions beyond mitigation only.
And the report has the merit to outline some major challenges emerging from the need of financing a comprehensive urban adaptation.
First, the need for innovative sources of financing and new ways to support climatic transition.
Secondly, the need to look at equity issues emerging from an adaptation process. For example, should a city strengthen flood defences in the CBD or should it upgrade public housing in flood-prone areas? Given the scale of the aims we need to evaluate carefully where best to invest the limited resources available.
But in this respect, no solutions are proposed.
This report is one of the many financial reports on climate change we have seen recently, about the risks and opportunities for the banking and insurance system. It’s probably the first to acknowledge clearly the need for comprehensive adaptation investments to make our cities more resilient.
But in concentrating on the infrastructure needs for cities, the report seems to miss the big picture.
There is still a need to understand how more integrated actions will include the social and environmental dimensions of adapting to climate change to create more sustainable and equitable cities.