New York, London, Paris, Melbourne… Everybody talk about… climate emergency, actually, not ‘Pop Muzik’ (and, yes, there is a certain irony to beginning an article about an activist agenda driven by Millennials and schoolchildren with a reference to a cheesy 1979 synth-pop disco hit that they are all to young to remember).
The rapidly rising roll call of places on the map that have officially declared a ‘Climate Emergency’ now numbers over 900 governments in 18 countries around the world.
Together, these nations, states, cities, towns, councils and jurisdictions represent a combined community of more than 200 million people.
If you work in the built environment, you are already in the business of climate politics, like it or not.
Leading the world
France has just become the largest country to have made a declaration, leapfrogging Argentina into pole position.
Britain, though, currently boasts the greatest total engagement at local level by population (with up-to-date facts and figures freely available to view in a Declaration Spreadsheet compiled by ICEF).
In addition, over 7,000 colleges and universities across six continents issued a collective declaration, at the start of July.
Not all declarations are the same. Whilst there are templates available for the precise wording, these constitute recommendations only for the core demands to be included in any resolution and their use verbatim is not a binding requirement.
So, what does it really mean to declare a Climate Emergency? Well, that depends…
Policy and practice, or simply politics?
Take the example of the UK Parliament itself — the first in the world to pass a motion to declare a Climate Emergency (although it should be noted the devolved powers in both Scotland and Wales got there days before). In this case, the prospect of any significant policy impact happening in practice begins to shrink fast on closer inspection.
As the name suggests, the Opposition Day motion was brought before the House of Commons on 1st May not by the ruling Conservative Government, but by the Leader of the Labour Party, sat across the political divide. Although the then Secretary of State for Environment, Michael Gove MP, refused to back the motion, as such, Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) were nevertheless instructed not to oppose it.
With this motion effectively originating one step away from the seat of power, it lacks legislative clout and ICEF has so far declined to include figures for Britain as a whole in its data. The vote did undeniably send out a laudable signal of support for the climate movement, but maybe little more concrete than that can be claimed.
Dark horses, or favourites?
When the focus turns to cities and municipalities, the familiar global guardians of the green flame, such as Boston or Basel, Bristol or Brighton & Hove, are effectively the ‘usual suspects’ and their declaration should come as no surprise. Their administrations already have climate plans aplenty in place, perhaps with carbon neutrality targets to match.
They have SDG-literate Mayors and MPs who are actively campaigning on environmental issues and pitch climate policy as a positive differentiator for development and sustainable growth.
These well-backed favourites are arguably not the climate horses to watch, however. Instead, maybe it is the outsiders, the longer-odds runners racing up on the rails: Cities such as Warsaw, or towns like Wigan; counties such as Tipperary, or regions like Tuscany?
Involved, but are you committed?
Of course, city-level climate initiatives of significance already exist: the pioneering C40 Cities network is actively engaged working towards demanding 2020 deadlines; the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) initiative has just brought to a close six years of support in funding, capacity building and technical assistance backed by $164M from the Rockefeller Foundation.
There is also the multi-year Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI) from the World Bank, as well as the (confusingly similar sounding) Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative (FSCI) lead by the WRI Ross Centre and C40 Climate Leadership Group, with funding from the Citi Foundation. More sector-specific programmes include the likes of the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment championed by the World Green Building Council.
So, what makes Climate Emergency declarations different?
Fundamentally, the key distinguishing driver is the powerful engine of public engagement — it a more populist movement. Reaching a growing audience and diverse demographic, the Climate Emergency message dials direct into the supporters of Extinction Rebellion, the ‘Blue-Planet generation’ and students striking on a Friday alongside the inspirational Greta Thunberg.
It is a people thing; and, therefore, deeply political. This people power is why it matters to a range of elected representatives — from Governors, Mayors and Councillors, to Senators, Parliamentarians and MPs. There are votes to be won (and lost).
So, for players in the green-building sector, for instance, the fact that a Climate Emergency has been declared by an English seaside resort such as Scarborough, or the so-called sugar capital of the Philippines, Bacolod, may well prove important as a pointer for future planning policy and a barometer of long-term investment. Its significance is strategic.
In short, then, if you earn a living in the built environment, you are already in the business of climate politics, like it or not. The question, therefore, is not whether you should get involved — you already are — but, what you are going to do?