Climate policy needs local leaders, by Cliff Hague

As the nations gather in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties - COP21, the latest global summit on climate change - there is a growing recognition that cities have a vital role to play.

By 2050, almost 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, according to the Cities100 report by think-tank Sustainia. The concentration of people and investment makes cities particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change – 90 per cent of urban areas are coastal, as Cities100 notes. Perhaps this is why local authorities around the world have taken climate change more seriously than national governments.

At this local level, planners were perhaps the earliest to advocate for climate change action. Welcome as this is, few have the technical, scientific and engineering background to weigh the merits of alternative strategies. Neither have they had the tools for analysis. Policy has thus been built on a rather deductive, intuitive base. It’s better than nothing, but we need something more.

Melbourne has been getting a lot of international attention in recent years for its innovations. In particular, it has been bold in using urban design as a tool for city development and rebranding, and it has also been a leader in planning for climate change. Until last year, it had tackled the challenges in much the same way as other councils, with good intentions but an opportunistic approach. Green spaces were promoted and drainage networks upgraded when funds were available, but the city’s efforts were not integrated.

Melbourne has now worked with other agencies and a range of professionals to develop an integrated climate adaptation model (ICAM). At its heart is the recognition that place matters, both in terms of risk and investment. It identifies vulnerable areas but is also used to compare adaptation strategies and inform strategic decisions – for instance, on responding to sea level rise or the threat from drought.

The model compiles several levels of geographical information systems (GIS) data for a multi-criteria evaluation. For example, there are high-resolution layers on soil, hydrology, and land use and cover, and flows are modelled on a catchment area basis. The ICAM combines GIS, hydrological modelling, climate modelling and visualisation, so it can be used both as a communication aid and a way to highlight what strategic investments are likely to be most cost-effective.

While the ICAM is not yet in the public realm, the city has shared the development with partners in its networks, the Global Cool Cities Alliance and Connecting Delta Cities. This approach points to the importance of international knowledge exchange. It is a pity that so few UK councils feel that they can now afford to engage in such activity.

To respond to the challenge of climate change, local authorities need to be international learners. Perhaps the UK’s "greenest government ever" could build a similar model for use as part of a duty to cooperate.

Cliff Hague is a consultant, author, researcher and trainer

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