This summer has been the hottest and driest in Britain since 1976. While many people have no doubt enjoyed the sunshine, it’s also clear that it will bring negative consequences. LSE researchers predict that more than a thousand Britons will have died from heat-related issues by the end of the summer. Moreover, if the extreme weather continues into winter, flooding risks could become a major risk across the UK.
Cities have a critical role in tackling these problems. Firstly, as home to more than 50 per cent of the population, 80 per cent of world economic output and 70 per cent of all energy consumption, urban areas need to lead the way in reducing emissions from fossil fuels. Secondly, many cities have a very practical impetus to need to focus efforts on becoming more resilient to extreme weather – Hull’s future, for example, depends on keeping rising tides at bay.
In particular, cities need to focus on cutting energy consumption in the transport sector and in domestic households, which account for nearly two-thirds of energy consumption across the UK. Here are three ways they can tackle these issues:
1. Reducing car usage and improving public transport
Currently, there are more cars on our roads than ever before. Car usage in Birmingham, for example, has increased by nearly 30 per cent since 2009, while two-thirds of people in cities such as Milton Keynes and Swansea depend on their car for commuting.
How can cities encourage more people to take other forms of transport? Improving bus services – which are the most commonly used form of public transport – would be a good start. CO2 emissions per person halve when they overlook a car trip in favour of even a diesel-driven bus journey. Moreover, with the new Bus Services Act, UK cities have gained more powers to work with their local bus operators. Local leaders should use these to better connect people to jobs, reducing the need for private cars.
Of course, funding these changes to public transport can be a challenge for cities. One solution could be to introduce a Workplace Parking Levy as used in Nottingham, or a congestion charge. Both schemes work by charging individual car users more to reflect the wider societal costs of their private car travel and thereby provide a revenue stream to improve buses or tor other active travel alternatives.
2. Increasing density in cities
Planning policies to promote urban density can help in reducing the need for cars. Moreover, mixed-use buildings, well-served by public transport and interspersed by networks of parks, can also increase conviviality, efficiency and prosperity of a city.
Copenhagen has for a long time used spatial planning to improve sustainability and wellbeing by focusing on strategic density around the public transport network. No major employer is further than 600 metres away from the closest public transport station. This allows the city to maintain green spaces in and around the city, providing green lungs and cool areas in the heat. Combining this with over 200 miles of bike lanes, cars are becoming a less attractive transport choice, with a third of all commuters using public transport and over 40 per cent cycling.
When developing housing and business space, UK cities should ensure that it is well-connected to public transport networks and cycle lanes, thereby reducing car dependency and limiting congestion. In addition, restricted parking should be considered. Reducing car dependency is not only beneficial for the environment but also has the potential to increase the mobility of those for whom car ownership in unfeasible, either because of their income, health or age.
3. Cutting domestic and business energy use
The UK will have to insulate 25 million homes to meet their energy targets by 2050, as its draughty housing stock is among the worst in Europe. Given that half of the houses in the UK are in cities, this is largely an urban issue. The Government’s decision to scrap the green deal home development fund (originally launched in 2013) and the zero carbon homes policy (announced in 2006) has not helped. Instead, improvements to energy efficiency in homes have stalled since 2015.
Without a national policy, cities need to take the lead on retrofitting houses and making sure new homes are efficient – and New York provides a good example for other places to follow. In 2009, it launched the Greener, Greater Building Plan, aimed at cutting emissions by the city’s large building, which are responsible for 45 per cent of carbon pollution. The plan introduced retrofitting and other cost-effective measures that have reduced businesses’ energy use by up to 31 per cent.
London too has tried to tackle these issues through the RE:FIT programme, launched in 2009 to help public sector organisations set up cost-and-energy-efficient retrofit projects. So far, the programme has saved 149 thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide and more than £7 million of public sector investment. This is a good start, but extending such projects to private homes is essential.
Cities are in a unique position to devise place-tailored planning policies and housing initiatives that reduce carbon emissions from the built environment and transport. Tackling climate change by reducing energy consumption is necessary and goes hand in hand with making our cities more resilient, liveable and prosperous.