Copenhagen or not, we have local responsibilities

Expectations for Copenhagen have been a swinging pendulum over the last few weeks.  Obama is going…he’s not going.  We’ll have legally binding agreements…we won’t have legally binding agreements.  In this uncertainty, the LGA held a timely debate earlier this week called Copenhagen: can we turn global talks into action on the ground? The panel was suitably expert to stimulate thought and incite intense frustration (or maybe that’s just me).

Richard Kemp (Deputy Chair, LGA) started off the discussion with a sobering figure on the high percentage of people who still think climate change isn’t caused by humans.  Then Chris Church (Low Carbon Communities Network) told a similarly upsetting anecdote of doing a training session in a district authority where a group of councillors came together and said that the council shouldn’t do anything about climate change as it’s not an issue.  This points to one of the main issues with the role that councils play in the UK’s response to climate change: we need politicians who aren’t afraid to make a tough decision that might only realise benefits after their time in office.  (It would also help if they accepted the causes of climate change in the first place.)

In my work in PAS I’ve come across more than one case where planners have recommended planning permission for renewable energy developments only to see it turned down by councillors.  The common case is windfarms.  I’ll admit to having serious concerns about windfarms and their impact on the environment.  But, if you don’t want windfarms in your area, then you need to encourage alternatives like Combined Heat and Power, solar, tidal or whatever else is appropriate in your area.  We need local leadership to promote policies and development that are appropriate to local circumstances.  And of course there is the obvious and necessary need to reduce the amount of energy needed and used through transportation, households and non-domestic buildings.  All of this can be done locally through the planning system.

Jeremy Beecham (Vice Chair of the LGA) admitted to being a reluctant convert to nuclear energy in his closing remarks to the LGA debate.  I interpret this to mean that he is aware that the solutions to climate change aren’t perfect, and the technology isn’t perfect.  But we need to make the best decisions that we can with the information and technology that we have now.  Whatever comes out of Copenhagen, local authority councillors will have just as much of a duty to act on climate change and take the necessary decisions to meet the UK’s target as central government politicians.  Their ability or inability to react in time will be just as significant.

6 thoughts on “Copenhagen or not, we have local responsibilities

  1. Hey Helen,

    I was just reading Mathew Helie’s ’round-up’ of his emergent urbanism blog – this bit at the end reminded me of your post:

    “The desire to control life drives the fear of the environmentalists, who do not recognize life as being a force capable of explosive adaptation and growth up to an equilibrium. Adopting supposedly sustainable technologies without adopting the processes of life will only invent new ways of destroying the environment.”
    summarising this:

    I take it that he’s not saying that we shouldn’t act – but that the system/processes within which we act need to change for any action to be ‘right’.

    How do you think this squares with your points? I think it provides a pretty good basis for criticism of some of the current techno-fetishism masquerading as sustainability – and perhaps supports your uneasiness about windfarms?


    • John – Sorry for the delayed reply. I’ve been out of town on a shamefully carbon heavy holiday, as you know. I saw this comment before I left but I had to think about it for a while before replying. For the most part, I find the Emergent Urbanism perspective very compelling. Unfortunately, I think it’s too simplistic.

      ‘Environmentalists’ is a word loaded with connotations, both positive and negative. It’s a drastic overgeneralisation to say that environmentalists all have a desire to control life (at least, any more than non-environmentalists). I would call myself an environmentalist and I think of myself as being driven primarily by my values for justice and equality. That sounds sappy but I think it’s true and it sets me apart from people who are driven by other values like wealth or power (not that I don’t want just a little bit of those too).

      My point is that, irresponsible use of fossil fuels by developed countries (but not only) has put the whole world in a dangerous situation. I absolutely loathe the argument that we need to appeal to some of these same companies to develop ‘green’ technology to get us out of this mess. And this is where I have uneasiness about windfarms. It’s not the best renewable energy technology for Britain and there is plenty of research telling us why. It is appropriate in some areas.

      I have more uneasiness about the idea of local authorities developing a hodge-podge of renewable energy technologies fast enough to significantly reduce CO2 emissions before it’s too late. I’d feel a lot better if we had a more connected and centrally supported plan, such as the development of fuel cells. The only downside is more money upfront. But that’s quickly changing:

      Thanks for the very insightful comment John.

  2. Interestingly, to continue the online “watercooler moment” I think emergent urbanism is actually too complex.

    I really enjoy the broad church of thinking that it draws together, and it feels like a sensible way of thinking about why (for example) central London looks like it does today.

    My problem is simply that I can’t work out what to do with it. It’s the gap between an academic model and the awkward contestedness of the real world.

    I can – at a stretch – imagine how we might use a CS / AAP / LDO combo to deliver emergent urbanism in a greenfield site (hey – what an ideal way to plan an eco-town!). But a place that already exists, hmm. I just can’t see that local authorities being the correct agent for this.

  3. Thanks Richard, you’re right. I wasn’t being precise enough with my language. When I said that Emergent Urbanism was too simplistic, I think I meant that it doesn’t account for the complexity of the systems within which we all have to work to make things happen on the ground. I wouldn’t dare to judge its merit in terms of planning theory as I hardly think I’m qualified. Maybe in good time…

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