#climatechange


Back in 2009, at the height of global financial crisis, John Lovering in a hard-hitting editorial in International Planning Studies declared that, finally, it had happened.

The recession marked ‘the end of planning as we had known it’. There was no going back. The neoliberal model of urban policy-making, “it’s inequities, it’s harmful social and cultural effects, it’s disastrous impact on the environment and its economic unsustainability” was dead.

Except of course, like previous crises, it wasn’t.

Phoenixlike, the strange non-death of neoliberalism emerged unfazed. The Irish planning profession, anxious to deflect from its complicity in the Celtic Tiger and unsure of what else to do, slavishly followed along as every manner of idiotic mass tourism hotel, student housing scheme, build-to-rent apartment development, co-living unit and high-rise office block was approved, each testament to the parasitic power and private fortunes of international capital wrapped up in some Orwellian supply-side doublespeak of what is good for us.

Fast forward ten years, and there has been much talk again recently, in light of the COVID19 crisis, of the urgent need for a deep structural change in the planning and organisation of our urban environments. We have seen some promising signs in this direction as cities across Europe, including Dublin, seize the opportunity to repurpose streets from private cars to pedestrians and cyclists – initiatives long held back by reactionary interests – and a greater acknowledgement of the real value of green spaces, clean air, noiselessness, social cohesion and nature in urban liveability. These may be temporary, but demonstrate what is possible.

The pandemic has also laid bare the recrudesce of a planning system that has once more been reduced to a reactive, short-term and opportunity-driven activity which is likely to see the our cities littered with overcapacity and stranded assets.

The economic impact of COVID19 is, as yet, unknown but projections suggest it is likely to be severe and turbulent. As in 2009, the planning profession is about to be again sharply thrust up against what is probably its chief intellectual weakness – what to do when the land market is rendered largely inoperative? In such a situation the pattern of land-use will have to be determined administratively, but planning, as a body of knowledge, offers no ideas as to how this might be done. Paralysis ensues.

Like all cultural shocks, the COVID19 disruption presents liminal spaces, moments of cultural rupture, to rethink and do things differently, and to listen to alternative voices from outside the mainstream proposing hitherto unthinkable solutions – but who are almost always ignored – that radically challenge our take-for-granted worldviews in ways that is impossible through incremental change.

In order to make the best of this opportunity, planners will first have to wake up to the inexorable socio-ecological realities and discontinuities that will transform their identities in the 21st Century and recognise that, as Lovering advised, the best place for many of the policies pursued over the past decades is in the bin.

First to go should be the speculative, pseudo-planning ‘compact city’ doctrine and the much-purported groupthink amongst developers and urban growthists that urban regeneration needs to be hyper-densified in order to be sustainable, but which has thus far failed to regenerate much beyond the bottom-line of the property developers, financiers and consultants.

Alternative pathways abound, leaning on insights from the peripheries of orthodox received wisdom. The City of Amsterdam, for example, has recently adopted a new holistic strategy for transformative urban action based on the pioneering ‘Doughnut Economics’ of British economist, Kate Raworth.

The Amsterdam ‘City Donut’ presents a long-term planning policy vision which seeks to supplant the growth-orientated and competitive commodification of the city with ‘a thriving, regenerative and inclusive city for all citizens, while respecting the planetary boundaries’ to tackle climate breakdown and ecological collapse. To this end Amsterdam has joined the Thriving Cities Initiative (TCI), a collaboration between C40, Circle Economy, and Doughnut Economics Action Lab, which works with cities pursuing such a transformation.

Such dissident thinking, which has long been ‘beyond the pale’ for Irish policy elites, resonates with the open letter, signed by more than a thousand academics and experts from more than sixty countries, calling for Degrowth – a democratically planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy – to be put at the centre of the COVID19 response, to build a more just and sustainable society and prevent further crises.

The Degrowth urban manifesto seeks to give the city back to its people, radically reorganise transport and mobility, (re)naturalise and decommodify the city, and, rather than densify, significantly increase space dedicated to green space, tree cover; biodiversity and urban ecosystems; and public housing, with a focus urban mobility on cycling, walking and public transport. These ideas reflect new ideas emerging from ‘post-growth’ planning thought which emphasises, solidarity, wellbeing, connectedness, empathy and a lifestyle based on principles of sufficiency.

Supporting growth and an irrational belief in ever rising asset values has, of course, always been the primary and unquestioned motivation of urban planning. It shall come as no surprise that, just as it was in the aftermath of the 2009 crisis, embracing new ethics and post-materialistic values will be stringently resisted by the old order who, as long as there are no viable alternatives, will engage in predatory delay insisting that the solution to the crisis is to work even harder at business-as-usual. Neoliberal urbanism has, after all, demonstrated extraordinary asymmetric capacity to crimp and contain disconfirming alternatives .

However, these are ideas whose time is coming. Nature is foreclosing our culture. To return to Lovering’s exhortation, planners will not be leading the action here, however “if they can shed the myopic habits of recent years and recapture the broader social and ethical inspirations with which the very concept of planning in modern times began, then planning might once again become worthy of the name”.

We cannot afford to waste the opportunity of crisis once more. Resigned realism is the best way to ensure the least transformative outcome.

Gavin Daly

@gavinjdaly @irelandplanners

*This blog has also been posted on Planners Network Ireland. If you wish to add your voice to other progressive planning voices, please sign-up!

“There is a revolution in transport coming”, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar proudly pronounced this week as he launched the Government’s latest ‘sensible’ and ‘pragmatic’ Climate Action Plan to ‘nudge’ people to make the right decisions to reduce carbon emissions over the long-term. I guess he didn’t fully get the memo. Perhaps twenty years ago such slothlike incrementalism might have been appropriate, maybe even auspicious. However, in the midst of the seriousness, scale and absolute emergency of our present planetary arson, such a chary level of business-as-usual lethargy is an irretrievably misconceived and delusive policy goal.

In his book, After Sustainability, John Foster describes three types of denial. The first, ‘literal denial’, is the type we’re all familiar with. The second, ‘interpretative denial’, accepts the facts but rejects the meaning, interpreting them in a way that makes them more benign to our personal psychology, in what Norwegian psychologist Kari Norgard calls the social ‘construction of innocence’ (e.g. Ireland is too small to make a difference; What about China?; If we stop producing beef, it will be produced elsewhere etc.).

The third form, ‘implicative denial’, which Foster argues is the most pernicious, is where we accept the facts and the interpretation but suppress the psychological, political and moral implications that would logically follow. For Foster, implicative denial is rife in our contemporary culture and is why so many of us, politicians and campaigners included, can continue to talk about how important climate change is without ever seriously confronting its reality and actually doing something about it.

An instructive example of this is the continued exaltation of Electric Vehicles (EVs) in Irish climate policy. This fixation with technologising ourselves out of our runaway transport emissions through ‘clean and green’ private mobility has been assiduous feature of all recent government policies, with each failed strategy being accompanied by ever more dizzying targets.

The original target was 250,000 by 2020. The National Development Plan, published last year, proposed half a million EVs by 2030. The latest strategy goes all out with a plan to increase the total number (currently less than a few thousand) to somewhere north of 800,000 by 2030 i.e. in 11 years. By way of comparison, there are around five million EVs currently in existence worldwide.

The heedless assumptions at the heart of the EV technotopia was laid bare in a recent open letter by Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the UK’s Natural History Museum, which explains that, for the UK alone to meet its 2050 EV targets, it would require two times the current total annual world cobalt output, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, 75% of the world’s lithium production and at least 50% of the world’s copper production. If that analysis was extrapolated worldwide, global output in all rare earth metals and other scarce natural elements would have to grow to implausible levels.

All of the elements used in battery production are finite and in limited supply. Scarcity of cobalt is already threatening the production of EVs, with over half of the world’s supply mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo and regularly linked to reports of child labour exploitation and horrendous environmental destruction. There is also currently no environmentally safe way of recycling lithium-ion batteries. And that is before we get to the thorny issue of where all the clean renewable energy, grid infrastructure and accompanying resources required to power EVs and the complete electrification of society will come from?

Add in the fact that Project Ireland 2040 proposes an aggressive strategy to double the size of the economy in the next 20 years, increase the population by over a million people and the current predilection for promoting Ireland as a location for data centres, which are projected to account for as much as 31% of Irish electricity demand by 2027, and all of this starts to become very far-fetched very quickly.

EVs also do nothing to resolve chronic traffic congestion, road investment requirements, sedentary lifestyles and all of the other pathologies associated with excessive private car use.  A full life-cycle assessment of EVs shows that, in reality, they produce very significant amounts of greenhouse gases, particularly during production, such that it is difficult to see how replacing the Irish fleet of two million fossil-fuel powered cars with two million somewhat-less-polluting electric cars, is going to get us anywhere near where we need to be in terms of emissions reductions.

It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. It should therefore come as no surprise that, given the complete dereliction of judicious spatial planning policy over the last three decades, the resultant sprawling development patterns and path-dependent carbon lock-in, the impulsive political instinct is to passively appeal to technological quick-fixes.

According to Foster, this is how we let ourselves off the hook, “quasi-intentionally not following up on the uncomfortable implications” of what we know and thereby suppressing any real discussion on changing the way we live, such that nothing really has to change. It is a truism, after all, that capitalism can never resolve its environmental contradictions, it only move them around. While it can countenance different cars, one thing it cannot accept, is less cars.

In reality, only a drastic reduction in private car use through bold policies to promote public transport, walking and cycling, with the balance of travel demand accommodated through electric car sharing schemes, will give renewable energy any chance of meeting the energy requirements of the transport sector. That’s what a transport revolution looks like. Unfortunately, imagining a post-car future is paradigmatically rejected as a violent encroachment on personal freedoms, which is ultimately the ideological rock that all meaningful climate action flounders upon.

One of the most progressive policies in recent years, ‘Smarter Travel – A New Transport Policy for Ireland 2009 – 2020’ which, contrary to utopic hyperreal EV futures, actually included defined targets for reducing travel demand, travel distances and private car ownership. This strategy committed to 500,000 more people taking alternative means to commute to work to the extent that the total share of car commuting will drop from 65% to 45%; walking, cycling and public transport would rise to 55% of total commuter journeys; and eliminating long distance commutes.

Smarter Travel, which as far as I am aware, still remains official government policy, has been quietly abandoned to the peripheries such that it received just one insipid mention in the Climate Action Plan. A Department of Transport report in 2014 concluded that its targets were impossible. The fact that such policies are considered impossible while the blind optimism of the aforementioned EV targets are somehow considered plausible, says a lot about the irrational hyperstistion of our current zeitgeist. Paradoxical is too weak a term for this. Its dishonest.

Climate change demands a politics of the impossible, made possible. A politics which problematises climate change in purely technical terms is simply a project to sustain and defend socio-economic structures that are well known to be unsustainable. The reality is that the chances of now remaining below two degrees of global warming are slim to none. Life this century is therefore likely be accompanied by a significant deterioration of humanity’s physical, social, and economic environment and, for much of the planet’s population, will become increasingly precarious.

The actions we must be calling for to negotiate our climate changed future are, not reactionary techno-managerialist platitudes, but real political asks for systemic change such as an abandonment of the arbitrary fetishisation of GDP growth as the dominant benchmark of societal progress and wellbeing (as recently in New Zealand  and Wales), land reform, basic income and natural climate solutions all of which are conspicuously absent from the Irish climate change debate.

It’s not my intention to be unnecessarily churlish and despairing of the Climate Action Plan, which does repeat many long-standing and worthwhile progressive policy measures, but as Foster puts it: “willed optimism, kept afloat by denial, is not an alternative to despair but a form of it”.

Gavin Daly