Tackling carbon emissions in urban areas

This Issue This is a part of the Building for climate change feature

By - , Build 188

A new research project will look at international and local examples of how carbon emissions can be reduced in urban communities while also improving community wellbeing and functionality.

THE RECENT COP26 meeting in Glasgow has shone a spotlight on the need for increasingly urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Work is well under way to identify what types of interventions should be pursued in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Role of urban areas in emissions unclear

As part of the Climate Change Response Act 2002, the Ministry for the Environment is required to publish the emissions reduction plan by 21 May 2022. This will set out how Aotearoa New Zealand will meet its climate targets.

An important step in developing this plan was the November publication of Te hau mārohi ki anamata – Transitioning to a low-emissions and climate-resilient future. This discussion document contains a range of policy ideas to decrease Aotearoa New Zealand’s emissions.

One important gap identified in Te hau mārohi ki anamata is that we do not know the emissions contribution of urban areas. Understanding the role played by changing urban form in reducing emissions – for example, densification – is essential to informed decisions and a pathway to effective emissions reduction. It presents a major opportunity in planning and investing for a low-carbon future.

Chance to reduce emissions and improve wellbeing

Te hau mārohi ki anamata also hints at a wider transformational opportunity. Given the potential magnitude of changes required to reduce emissions, the door could also be open to lift living standards and improving wellbeing at the same time.

As it notes, ‘The scale of the change is an opportunity to address other long-standing challenges in Aotearoa. We must integrate the reduction measures with strategies for industry, infrastructure, housing, urban development, fiscal management and plans for building resilience to the physical effects of climate change.

‘We are at a critical moment in time. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for a continued focus on wellbeing as the headline indicator for success, and for strengthening how we tackle the long-term challenges that hold back our economy and affect our communities, such as climate change.’

Identifying effective approaches

As part of the BRANZ-led Transition to a zero-carbon built environment programme, WSP has received Building Research Levy support to identify evidence-based effective emissions reduction approaches that can also deliver benefits for well-functioning communities. Good evidence empowers and enables community decision makers to make beneficial decisions about emissions reduction on behalf of their communities and environments.

Working with local authorities and their communities, central government and key urban development agencies, the project will look at real-world examples and practice internationally and domestically.

The project has three components:

  • Looking at the existing and emerging evidence for emissions reduction and benefits for urban environments.
  • Determining the key characteristics of successful interventions that both reduce these emissions and deliver benefits.
  • Identifying lessons around what makes for successful implementation and change in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This project is particularly timely, as there are important discussions both locally and nationally about emissions reduction alongside new measures to accelerate infrastructure development and construction in communities.

Reforms to the Resource Management Act 1991 are also currently in train and provide the opportunity to integrate evidence-based emissions reduction into land-use planning and investments. Providing evidence of the effectiveness of initiatives that are good for people and nature can help councils see how models such as Regenerative Neighbourhoods can be deployed in their communities.

Potential outcomes

The project began in January 2022 and is expected to take 12 months to complete. What comes out of the project will be shaped by the needs of end users. Based on early discussions, these are likely to include:

  • a potential playbook of evidence-based initiatives designed for use by end users – officers and councillors and central government decision makers – and aimed at reaching beyond a technical user, which could be shared with businesses, community groups and non-governmental organisations
  • an online fact bank curating relevant evidence in an accessible, visible format
  • a formal report providing information about the evidence base and methodology that can be used as the basis for policy development and future research
  • a recorded webinar using plain language to explain the research, findings and actions available, including support materials such as PowerPoint presentation.

A combined effort will be needed

A combined effort from all New Zealanders is required to reduce emissions and transition to a low-carbon future. We need to understand how effectively reducing emissions in towns and cities can help achieve wellbeing outcomes in equitable ways.

But we also need to go one step further and make sure that information about options and actions can be communicated effectively.

Experience shows change isn’t always easy. People and communities are likely to be concerned about how changes needed to reduce emissions could potentially impact their lives. Questions are asked about where best to focus efforts, the pace of change or why different approaches are necessary or are being considered. It is against this backdrop that trustworthy, impartial and independent evidence is all the more important to inform the conversation.

This project is an opportunity to identify what reductions are possible and the benefits that can come from them and support the essential local and national conversations required for action.

For more

If you’d like to find out more about the project, please get in touch with the WSP team via [email protected]

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