Tag Archives: Environmental limits

Let’s support the thinkers

Change – particularly difficult or contested change – needs a clear purpose if it is to stand any chance of acceptance.  Why should I leave my comfy car at home and stand on a freezing railway station waiting for a delayed and crowded train?  Why should I turn down the central heating in those parts of the house which the warmth from the multi-fuel stove doesn’t reach?  Why shouldn’t I fully participate in the annual orgy of consumption that is Christmas?

The answer, of course, depends on whether you believe we can go on plundering the planet’s resources.  Climate change deniers think we can, but they’re not looking at the evidence.  The overwhelming consensus among people who know what they’re talking about is we need to change our consumption habits.  But we need help.

Public authorities have generally been slow to promote innovation.  That’s not surprising, even though depressing, because politicians are risk-averse.  So we need new approaches to encouraging change.

Exeter City Futures is a new kid on the block.  It’s a not-for-dividend community interest company, with a small staff of bright people [1].  They are exploring options for making Exeter a sustainable city, starting from the premise that our current level of energy use is too high for the planet’s continued existence and that the level will increase by 50% unless we intervene to change things.  Unlike large cities where turnaround times are going to be up to 50 years, Exeter is sufficiently small for ECF to believe that significant change can be achieved within 10 years.

Sensibly, ECF is not trying to do everything.  At least initially, there is a focus on two goals for Exeter: to become energy-independent, in the sense of generating its own managed energy needs; and to reduce traffic congestion to zero.  Because transport – or more accurately our mobility needs and urges – is a key driver of energy use (40% of the total according to ECF using government figures), and because it occupies a central place in spatial planning, that’s what this and some subsequent posts will discuss.

A key element of the ECF analysis is that we use our resources inefficiently.  Congestion exists because there are too many private vehicles, which sit parked for much of the day doing nothing.  The aim should be to design a system where all vehicles are in use all of the time moving people to their destinations.  It’s worth recalling that the public sector railway industry spotted this decades ago:  those of a certain age may recall railway sidings full of carriages that were only wheeled out at summer weekends for the extra traffic.  Well before privatisation, the sidings became grass or houses or supermarkets, and the carriages were long gone to the breaker’s yard.

So the ECF approach is to develop carrots that will change social norms, so that – for example – owning your own car is seen as odd behaviour.  This is where MaaS (Mobility as a Service) comes in.  Taken to its full potential, you would buy a mobility package like you buy a mobile phone package.  Depending on what you pay for, you could have public transport and/or private car journeys on tap, without having to own a car.  It’s beginning to happen in Helsinki.

There are other approaches which don’t go the whole hog to MaaS.  For example, driverless cars – which are legal in the UK, though not in most of the rest of Europe – enable you to spend driving time working or thinking or looking out of the window or talking to your partner.  And the technology means that the hire car will come to you, saving that tedious journey to go and pick it up.

On air quality, electric vehicles have greatly improved.  Affordable electric cars can hold a 100-mile charge, which would cover about 3 days of commuting in and out of Exeter.

Journey information is a mis-used term.  Think of all those pretty LCD signs that used to adorn the bus stops in the centre of Exeter.  Or the invitation to text a bus stop code to find out when you might be on your way.  Sadly, all they told you was when the next bus was due, not when it was actually coming.  New panels are now appearing, hopefully with real time information.  Knowing when your bus or train is coming is key to encouraging people to rely on public transport.

Simple things, like tickets (or smart cards) that can be used on buses and trains.  London’s Oyster Card is brilliant, and the challenge is to do it in a fragmented transport system like Devon’s.  But it makes life easier, and making life easier is an important carrot to get people out of their private cars.

ECF are looking at these options, and more.  They deserve encouragement, though they’ll need to carry people with them at the same time.  The local authorities will need to open their minds to radical thinking and be prepared to take a few risks.  Carefully chosen demonstration projects should help.

Nothing is straightforward.  Devon is a large rural county.  If you can make the train service from, say, Honiton to Exeter more attractive, how do you make it so compelling that people who have to drive from their rural homes to get to Honiton don’t just decide to carry on in the car to Exeter?  Any answers?

Funding is the elephant in the room.  I’ll look at this in future posts.


[1]   This post draws shamlessly – and selectively – on two presentations by ECF.  One by Glenn Woodcock, the CEO, to the Exeter Civic Society on 18 June; the other by Stephen Dunphy, the mobilty issues lead, at an ECF seminar on 23 June.


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/