At COP26, Remembrance Day was dedicated to Cities, Regions and Built Environment. The outcome was, as for the rest of this COP, hopelessly techno-centric and narrow-minded. There was no mention of the full lifecycle of the technologies supposed to save us, very little was said about alternative models and change of behaviours, and key sustainable development goals like biodiversity and social equality were left aside.

What was agreed?

Nothing much.

The main message of the declaration was that “a rapid global transition to zero emission vehicles (ZEV) is vital to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement”. Four priorities were identified to support this transition: developing the EV charging infrastructure, increasing CO2 or fuel efficiency standards and regulations, exploring options for heavy-duty vehicles, and engaging with developing countries to ensure the transition is global.

Although the UN’s declaration is titled “ZEV Transition Council: 2022 Action Plan”, no firm action has been agreed. The only accord that was reached was to continue to talk: “explore options”, “develop a shared understanding”, “launch new taskforces”, “exchange best practices”, and, my favourite, “continue the engagement with developing countries through Regional Dialogues”.

Is it bold enough?

Simple answer – no.

First, there is no “zero emission vehicle”. Even if they don’t release CO2 through fuel combustion, electric vehicles still need to be manufactured. The equipment used for this, from excavators to mine raw materials, to trucks to transport them, and industrial machines to process them, is very energy-intensive and reliant on fossil fuel combustion. Moreover, battery and electric vehicle manufacturing is extremely polluting, as a lot of chemicals are used to refine the huge amount of soil and rock containing small proportions of the desired materials, like cobalt, lithium, terbium, or gold. Almost all the extraction and refining take place in countries where environmental norms are minimal, so promoting the like-for-like replacement of the vehicle fleet from ICE to electric in cities equates to proposing to offshore pollution. It also creates a risk of rebound effect: if people think using an EV is clean, they may be encouraged to use it more, increasing traffic (with associated risks of accidents), and releasing more particles from the wear of brakes and tires. To avoid moving the problem to other parts of the world, or creating rebound effects, we need to promote the use of truly sustainable options: walking, cycling, public transport, or even car sharing.

Besides, the negotiations’ outcome is focused only on Transport, which is only one of many aspects to consider to make urban areas sustainable. In terms of GHG emissions, the impact of buildings is as important as the use of vehicles, as most of the heat and electricity we use, in the UK and worldwide, is generated through fossil fuels. Industrial zones have an equally high impact, as the machines used in manufacturing processes are very energy-intensive, releasing CO2 directly (fuel combustion) or indirectly (electricity generation). Many industrial processes also involve chemical reactions that release carbon and other greenhouse gases.

Finally, GHG emissions are far from being the only issue to tackle. Cities are increasingly vulnerable to rising waters, hotter temperatures, floods and air pollution. Measures of resilience are needed to mitigate these risks: tree planting and the development of green areas are key. Urban areas also face major social issues: as Janet Sans, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, put it, 20th-century cities were designed by “middle-aged men with cars”. City planning is utilitarian, focused on roads to go to work: not on areas to enjoy, or inclusive ways to walk around. Women’s safety, disabled or elderly people’s access, and people’s ability to choose transport modes that are good for their health (walking, cycling) are all impacted by such planning. Everywhere in the world, social inequalities are also reinforced by the increasing price and time spent on transport by lower classes, pushed by gentrification or urban population increase to neighbourhoods further away from the centre, less green and more polluted.

Fortunately, one can regain hope after the UK pledged yesterday to unlock £27.5m of new funding for the Urban Climate Action Programme. The UCAP will support cities across Africa, Asia and Latin America “to take climate action and create a sustainable future”. This is almost as much as the planned budget for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee event in 2022 (£28m): no doubt life-changing solutions will be found with such generosity.

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