News: Creating a smart and sustainable city – a look at Reading, Berkshire

Professor Tim Dixon, Chair in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment, School of the Built Environment, University of Reading

Reading Berkshire

Reading town centre from the Abbey Ruins with a view of the Blade, Reading’s tallest building. Source: David Merrett:

The world’s growing urban population

We live in an urban world. Today a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and this is set to grow to nearly 70% by 2050. In the UK we are already heavily urbanised with about 80% of the population living in cities. In England much of the future growth will come from existing smaller and medium sized urban areas like Reading.

So rapid urbanisation, changing demographics and climate change will all impact on the way that people live, work and play in cities. This means we need to plan for the future to try and overcome the current disconnection between short term planning horizons and longer term environmental change to 2050.

City visions

Many cities around the world have therefore developed visions (or shared expectations) about the future. In the UK, for example, Bristol’s 2020 vision, and its smart city vision, is based on ‘people, place and prosperity’, a desire to be a ‘Global Green Capital’, and an aspiration to be a centre for smart city thinking. In Canada, Vancouver aims to be the world’s greenest city by 2020, with tough targets set for greenhouse gas emissions and a desire to create a city which is resilient to climate change. In Denmark, Copenhagen’s vision is based on a target to be carbon-neutral by 2025, underpinned by a highly successful walking/cycling policy agenda and a strong focus on renewable energy.

These cities are planning to be both ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’. This means using new technology (such as smart metering, environmental sensors, and smart traffic management systems) to help create a more sustainable future for people living in cities which is also economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. Creating a smart and sustainable city isn’t easy. It requires a clear strategic vision, a strong link with climate change strategy, active planning, inclusive participation with key stakeholders, and a sense of political viability.

So what about Reading?

Reading’s success is based on its physical and virtual connectivity nationally and internationally, but a big challenge is how to balance the amount of skilled employment required in Reading with the size of its direct labour force. Reading is a net importer of labour, which also creates pressures on housing, transport and longer commuting distances. A rich heritage and historic built environment also makes it difficult to re-engineer or retrofit an urban area like Reading, and adapt and mitigate for the growing effects of climate change. Reading also suffers from poor air quality, and, if accompanied by an increasing frequency of extreme weather events, this could affect people’s health and safety, the continuity of business, and the resilience of energy and water supplies.

So to help us think more strategically about these important issues in Reading the University has been working with Barton Willmore and Reading UK CIC to help create a smart and sustainable vision for Reading, looking ahead to 2050. Through a series of workshops and other related activities we have started to develop a vision for what Reading will look and feel like in 2050. Our thinking has covered urban design scenarios which encompass ‘rivers and parks’, ‘green technology’, and ‘festivals and cultures’ themes. By helping Reading continue to develop as a centre not only for green thinking and research, but also for digital technologies, Reading could also ultimately become an ‘urban living lab’ to help other cities become both smart and sustainable.

Opinion: The Road to Paris – can we navigate the pot holes to a global deal in December?!

UNclimatelogoDr Chuks Okereke gives his personal account of progress, or the lack of it, from the recent UN climate meeting in Bonn (June 2015). Chuks is Associate Professor in Environment and Development and Associate Director of Leverhulme Climate Justice and Ethics Doctorate Training programme at the University of Reading.

The UN climate negotiations are famous for their agonisingly slow progress and last minute, late night deals, but even by their own standards, the Bonn meeting was notoriously frustrating, both in pace and content.

The 42nd meeting of the Subsidiary Bodies to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (to use its technical name) which closed on Friday 12th June is just one more step on the road to the full UN Climate Summit in December in Paris. If it offers an indication of the kind of ‘deal’ to be expected in Paris then, clearly the omen is not good.

Game playing by the developed countries

While the Heads of State of some of the world’s richest countries gave encouraging words at the G7 summit outside Munich, it seemed that their climate negotiators, just 400 miles to the north in Bonn, were playing a game of time wasting.

Led by the US and to a lesser extent Australia and Canada, developed countries chose to clutter the process with distracting talk of concepts, possible flow of text and procedural matters.  For example, in the meetings on finance the G77 (a loose grouping of developing countries) and China were anxious to have a discussion on the scale and sources of finance, while developed countries preferred to talk about whether or not it would be better to have the section on scale before or after the section on sources!

Similarly in the meeting on intended mitigation commitments developed countries refused several invitations to discuss what emission reductions pledges they might make, but rather chose to focus on possible time frames and cycles for communicating action – the form and scale is yet to be decided.

From “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” to “Common but Shifted Responsibility”

Personally, I’m deeply concerned that this game of brinkmanship and delay might lead to a rushed and half-baked Paris deal that will fall short of the ambition required to protect the Earth and the most vulnerable populations around the world.

In particular, there is a distinct danger that the Paris climate agreement, if hastily worded at the last minute by powerful countries as was the case in Copenhagen in 2009, will end up imposing unwarranted obligations on poor countries who are the victims of climate change.

Indeed, several aspects of the lengthy and convoluted negotiating text appear to demand stringent emission reduction and reporting obligations from poor developing countries without providing for the necessary financial and  technical support they will need to meet such obligations. These moves suggest that developed countries are keen to walk away from the accepted common but differentiated responsibility principle in pursuit of a perverse ethical principle which might be termed the common but shifted responsibility principle.

Equity at the Core of the Disagreement

Despite the ‘smoke and mirror’ diplomacy deployed by developed countries, the key disagreements are quite obvious and these centre on old unresolved conflicts about equity and justice.

Developing countries are adamant that developed countries should not only take on ambitious mitigation commitments but should also provide adequate and predictable finance to help facilitate adaptation and low carbon development in the South. They are also angry that developed countries have consistently failed to meet previous promises made in relation to finance, technology transfer and capacity building.

Developed countries on their own part insist that the new agreement should generate far reaching financial and emission reduction obligations for all countries, especially the developing countries with fast rising emissions and GDP. They insist that the world has changed a lot since the initial convention was signed in 1992 and that the Paris agreement must reflect these ‘new economic realities’.

Two more rounds to go before Paris

There are two more rounds of negotiations, in August and October, before the Paris Conference in December, but it is hard to see how these intractable issues and fundamental differences can be resolved in these remaining meetings.  If the debacle of Copenhagen teaches us anything, it is that lack of openness and transparency can do lasting damage to the fabric of trust on which international environmental diplomacy is built.

Developed countries should come clean with their offers on how they plan to show leadership for cutting emissions that reflect their historical responsibility. There should be a commitment to negotiate in good faith and work with liked minded countries in developing countries to work out package deal that is fair, equitable and ambitious enough to protect the world from man-made climate change. Developing countries on their own part could move the discussion forward by putting forward concrete proposals that will ‘force’ a reaction from developed countries.  A deal in Paris is both an ecological as well as a political necessity and diplomats on all sides should know that the time to move a gear in the negotiation is now.