Notes from COP OP 15: It’s the City, Stupid

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Reporting from Copenhagen. While the world remains undecided, Peter Raisbeck argues that emissions reductions begin in our cities.

The lack of firm emissions targets as an outcome at Copenhagen will stifle these burgeoning markets, slow technology transfer and increase the difficulty of protecting future generations from extreme climate change.

The Copenhagen Summit – the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference – was a unique opportunity for nation states to collectively commit to an ambitious reduction in CO2 emissions. Also known as COP15, the conference included the fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That a binding commitment did not result, and that any concrete global framework to create and govern a low-carbon world still seems elusive, means that the window of opportunity for preventing the irreversible effects of climate change is rapidly diminishing.

The famous remark Bill Clinton made during his 1992 election campaign can equally be applied to COP15: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Addressing climate change and achieving a global agreement through flexible mechanisms of global governance, such as global carbon markets, is a way to ensure the future of the global economy. The lack of firm emissions targets as an outcome at Copenhagen will stifle these burgeoning markets, slow technology transfer and increase the difficulty of protecting future generations from extreme climate change. Many people had hoped that an agreement at COP15 would create opportunity for developing and developed countries. An agreement may have allowed developing nations to adopt models that embody a completely new approach to economic growth and rapid urbanization, while developed countries could look to new technologies and employment to create a different economic paradigm from the one we know. As Lord Stern argued in his 2006 report “The Economics of Climate Change”, the costs of acting now in terms of global GDP will be cheaper than the costs of acting in the second half of this century. However, as most architects will know, it is often hard to argue the economic value of a design in the early stages of a project and, indeed, the value of spending more on design at this early stage. It surprises me that despite the solidity of the science concerning climate change, contrarians and sceptics still argue that there is no economic worth in designing a global system right now. But if we are to accept the science, then addressing these issues sooner rather than later is critical because climate change is both an economic and a development issue. This is particularly the case in large tropical cities located in developing countries, which will be most affected by changes in the global climate.

COP15 was harshly described by one Australian politician and sceptic as a circus. To an attendee at the conference this comment underscores how far behind our country lags in the global debate. Admittedly, the conference could be described as circus. As with a room full of 192 architects, a room full of people representing 192 nations, plus people representing UN organizations, numerous NGOs, indigenous and environmental collectives and corporations, is bound to get a little out of hand. A little chaos is probably the nature of the global system. Nonetheless, a circus creates a space where everyone can perform followed by a conclusion or finale. In the finale, the audience is often witness to a collective event where all the skills of the individual performers are choreographed together. In theory, we leave the circus happier and wiser knowing what everyone can do together and we are reconciled to a common outcome. Unfortunately, the outcome at COP15 remains, at the time of writing, inconclusive. The attempts to tie nations to ambitious and legally binding targets, alongside flexible mechanisms of global governance, remain in tatters. Arguably, a few geopolitical actors and great powers stole the show in its final moments. This outcome was no consolation to the nation states in the oceans most at risk from climate change.

If our cities are to become carbon-free, then Australian architects must be militant advocates for the design of a low-carbon world.

If we are to twist Bill Clinton’s aphorism a little further, it might be said that not only is it about the economy, but “it’s the city, stupid.” In one conference session, the incongruous pair of the Governor of São Paulo, José Serra, and the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, argued that cities are the key node in the global system for lowering carbon emissions. They argued that an effort by cities to follow a low-carbon pathway will potentially bypass the efforts of nation-states. Should the Kyoto Protocol and the so-called Copenhagen Accord resolve issues concerning emission targets, clean development projects, carbon markets, deforestation and agriculture, eventually the focus will turn to cities and how they can be embedded into a global framework governing carbon emissions.

At the conference there were many events that focused on the contribution cities could make to reducing climate change and, again, this underscored how far the debate lags in the Australian polity. While our infrastructure and innovation policies still seem to be stuck in road spaghetti and centralized energy systems, there is also a reluctance to form technology transfer partnerships with developing countries – not that Australia has any technology to transfer, given the way our renewable sector has been stifled by government policies. The European Union has taken a lead in all of the above, resulting in a level of entrepreneurship among technocrats and businesses that will give European cities and knowledge clusters a competitive advantage in the future. Indicative of this is that many European cities were part of the so-called circus at COP15. Copenhagen itself, Stockholm (fossil-fuel-free by 2050) and Linköping in Sweden, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Trondheim in Norway were all represented. Newly established cities such as Masdar in the United Arab Emirates and Caofeidian in China also point to the importance of cities in the global climate mix.

Issued to coincide with the conference, the Call for Action by the Australian Institute of Architects (in conjunction with the Royal Institute of British Architects, Architecture Canada and the Commonwealth Association of Architects) echoes the principles and blueprints for action already evident in the EU. In Australian architectural discourse to date, it has been commonplace to integrate into practice an all too subtle and reasonable approach via sustainable guidelines and regulations. However, the Call to Action quite rightly urges a far more radical approach than is common in our current discourse. For example, it argues for reducing per capita emissions by up to 90 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, and for designing all new buildings to be carbon-neutral in energy use by 2020. It proclaims the need for an international mechanism for the building sector to offset emissions from existing building stock. The Call to Action suggests that if our cities are to become carbon-free, then Australian architects must be militant advocates for the design of a low-carbon world. Increasingly, as time goes on, simply being reasonable will no longer suffice and the radical protests, geopolitical fault lines and portents of catastrophe that surrounded the COP15 circus will only become more acute. Architectural design and design research must focus on a sweeping rethinking of our current models of urbanization and experimental form-making in an uncompromising fashion. The low-carbon cities of the future will only be created when the utopian urbanism and radical politics of our modernist traditions meet the challenges of the future.

Peter Raisbeck is a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Melbourne.



Published online: 1 Mar 2010


Architecture Australia, March 2010

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