We know what we need to do …

Let’s move away from Exeter for a moment, into the wider world

There should be no serious argument by now – but there is and will continue to be – that the world cannot go on as we are.  Climate change is a real threat, though too few of us take it seriously [1].  The very term “climate change” has now become overused – and misused – to the point at which it has become a turn-off.  Like the much-abused “sustainable development”, it is trotted out as another tick-box on the policy-making check list.

Perhaps it’s helpful to describe the impending crisis differently.  I prefer to use the term “exceeding environmental limits”, which gets over the idea that the planet’s resources are finite and we cannot go on consuming them at the present rate without seriously prejudicing the futures of our children, their children, their children’s children and so on.

At the international level, there have been many good initiatives attempting to engage authorities and individuals as well as national governments.  Local Agenda 21, adopted at the Rio Summit in 1992 was a non-binding commitment to advance sustainable development with the catch phrase “Think global, act local” [2].  It inspired a flurry of activity, including in the UK, with many local authorities committing to local action plans.  But the world moved on, and LA21 itself was largely forgotten.  There is no reference to it on the UK government’s website (although it figures frequently on the Scottish Government’s).  Its decline in Devon can be seen on the County Council’s website where a dated piece [3] describes its progress from action plan to independent charity which was then taken over by the Devon Conservation Forum (speaks volumes!) which was in turn – after the website narrative – absorbed into the Devon branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (volume even higher) and was never heard of again.

In Ireland, by contrast, LA21 is still alive and well, and the national government has been providing funding for relevant projects annually since 1997.

Perhaps LA21’s most lasting legacy in the UK is the Transition Towns movement [4], local community groups who devise new approaches to developing our towns and cities, and who lobby the authorities to adopt them.  Exeter has its own group, Transition Exeter [5]

Of course, novelty is attractive, so the ideas underlying LA21 were rewritten into later versions of much the same principles.  Underpinning everything is the UN’s set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015.  To focus on urban areas, a worldwide network of cities and regions – ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability – has been keeping the international conference circuit going for several years.  Based on the Aalborg Commitments [6], its latest product is the Basque Declaration, adopted in April 2016, which sets out eminently sensible and necessary actions [7].

The Basque Declaration states:

We understand the need for transformation in order to:

  1. decarbonise our energy systems and reduce total energy consumption,
  2. create sustainable urban mobility patterns and accessibility for all,
  3. protect and enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services,
  4. reduce the use of greenfield land and natural space,
  5. protect water resources, water and air quality,
  6. adapt to climate change, and reduce the risk of disasters,
  7. improve public space to create convivial, safe, and vibrant environments,
  8. provide sufficient and adequate housing


At the EU level, there is no shortage of exhortation, goals and frameworks.  The current Dutch EU Presidency is giving strong support to an EU Urban Agenda, expected to be approved by member states at the end of May.  Alongside this the Dutch have arranged a City Maker’s Summit to “connect people that are actively engaged in the liveability of their cities”, as part of a continuing EU Cities in Transition programme [8] (in which no UK city plays any visible role).   And there’s the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities [9], which “brings together cities, industry and citizens to improve urban life through more sustainable integrated solutions”.  Doubtless, there are many more.

That said, beneath the verbiage and grandstanding of international networking, what’s going on is really important.  It’s a growing and sustained recognition that the planet is at risk, and that there are ways available to start living within our environmental means.  Some of these challenges are deep-seated – such as weaning people away from the belief that material economic growth is the only valid measure of success – and that won’t be solved by building a few zero-carbon houses.  But planning our communities differently is important for two reasons.  First, by stopping any further development that is not consistent with sustainable development goals, those decisions contribute – albeit in a minor way – to slowing down our journey to breaching environmental limits.  Second, those decisions send our signals that business-as-usual is no longer an option, and begin to engage communities in a shared search for new approaches, including exploring alternatives to conventional economic growth.

Engaging communities will be a recurring theme in this blog.




[1] See, for example, George Marshall’s book “Don’t Even Think About It:  Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”, Bloomsbury 2014.  One of Marshall’s key points is that climate change is too remote to be a realistic threat, and so we don’t focus on it.

[2]  For an introduction and summary see http://www.sustainable-environment.org.uk/Action/Local_Agenda_21.php

[3]  http://www.devon.gov.uk/historicalbackground

[4]  https://www.transitionnetwork.org/

[5]  http://www.transitionexeter.org.uk/

[6]  http://www.sustainablecities.eu/fileadmin/content/JOIN/finaldraftaalborgcommitments.pdf

[7]  Details of the suggested actions are at http://conferences.sustainablecities.eu/basquecountry2016/declaration/

[8]  https://citiesintransition.eu/

[9]  http://ec.europa.eu/eip/smartcities/


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