UK’s cities need to realise their power in tackling climate change

Liverpool city region mayor Steve Rotheram at the launch of the region’s £6.4m hydrogen bus project.

The public want to see city leaders to be given more power to take action now and implement plans to reduce carbon emissions, says Arup’s Richard de Cani.

Last year, worldwide attention was focused on the UK as national leaders debated a global problem.  In Glasgow, COP26 delegates discussed what must be done to make an immediate impact on climate change, negotiating the transformation of systems that underpin our daily lives and economies.  

On their own however, national and international measures won’t be enough to get us over the line. With COP behind us we need to keep momentum going and much of the impetus has to come from elsewhere.  International targets are essential, but they must be supported by city-level intervention, which can be the engine of swift, tangible climate action.

Today cities generate more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and by 2050 the world’s urban population will exceed six billion, presenting huge challenges for cities, established and new. 

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Arup showed that 80% of people surveyed in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast and Glasgow believe that city leaders and mayors should have more powers to cut carbon emissions. In addition, two-thirds of people in those cities agree that their city leaders need a seat at the table during international climate conferences such as COP26 for meaningful progress to be achieved. It’s time for city leaders to be given more power to take action now and implement plans to reduce carbon emissions.

Across the UK we’re already seeing the importance of city-led action. As part of Arup’s work with C40 Cities, the global network of cities committed to addressing climate change, we have identified six priority areas where we believe cities can play a leading role in driving change. 

First of all, the greatest potential to reduce emissions at city level lies in the adaption and retrofit of existing buildings under their control. City leaders can directly influence this through the setting of policies and plans which encourage the adaptation and retrofitting of buildings instead of demolishing and rebuilding them.

Another major factor is that of travel, given that cities hold the authority to change travel behaviour through the creation of integrated and sustainable transport networks and closer integration between transport and land use planning. This will create the conditions where active travel, public transport and zero emission travel are prioritised – encouraging behaviour change and supporting the transition to new technologies in an inclusive way.

Cities can also improve their biodiversity and adapt to the impacts of climate change through investment in green and blue rather than traditional grey infrastructure. Integrating nature-based solutions with traditional urban infrastructure such as roads will provide greater resilience to extreme weather and provide additional amenities for local people, helping improve health and wellbeing.

One thing which unites these measures is the need for funding and leaders can implement initiatives at the city scale that will secure investment and unlock the finance needed to facilitate climate action plans at the pace and scale required. In London, mayor Sadiq Khan has identified green finance as a key part of his programme to help make the capital zero carbon by 2050 and for the city to transition to a low carbon circular economy.

As well as promoting their own measures, cities can also provide a home for the generation of new technologies which can help us transition from fossil fuels towards zero and low carbon alternatives. They will be an important testbed for new technology and new models of micro generation.  For example, Merseytravel appointed Arup to launch the first hydrogen bus pilot in the north west, a project aiming to show the potential of hydrogen in low carbon mobility and, in turn, support the decarbonisation of the transport system.

Finally, the nature of cities makes them perfectly placed to adopt circular economy principles in how they’re run.  Cities concentrate people, resources, talent and ideas in a small area, often with single political leadership. By 2050, around two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, consuming high levels of resources and generating significant waste. Implementing the circular economy will help them reduce waste and congestion, while bringing down costs – paving the way for economic, social and environmental benefits.

Climate change may be an issue which is considered on a global scale, but policy responsibilities held by city leaders have the power to make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions. The areas I have outlined are vital if we are going to hit the targets, we need to in order to combat climate change and all are, at least partially, under the control of local leaders. Climate change is a global problem, but that doesn’t mean the solutions can only be found through international negotiation and agreements. Our council offices and city halls have a major part to play.  

Richard de Cani is the global planning leader at Arup.