December 06, 2010

Climate Policy—Building Cathedrals and Improving Infrastructure and Cities?

By Michael Replogle, Vice-Director, Global Policy

Will the failure to secure a comprehensive global climate agreement lead the way to smarter infrastructure and urban development? That’s a question some observers were asking today in at the ongoing global climate summit.

When addressing civil society this weekend at the meeting in Cancun, the Mexican Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba said the current meeting departs from previous climate change conferences because the negotiators are no longer working towards a comprehensive legally binding treaty, as was expected before the 2009 Copenhagen meeting.  Instead of one deal at a specific time, he predicted the process will require a number of parallel steps over time. Only some of these will require legal obligations.  This approach has the chance of providing more flexibility and allowing some aspects of the process to move ahead, spurring innovation and solidifying a foundation for mobilizing political will towards decisions in areas of continuing contention, he said.

At the same briefing, Fernando Tudela, former leader of the Mexican climate delegation also spoke. An architect by training, he compared the climate treaty process to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, saying, “there exist no plans, is very ambitious, we are still building it, and it feels like it never ends.”

In the past, the process around the Kyoto negotiations and the subsequent treaty was often seen as a top-down approach with many bureaucratic requirements that became hurdles when devising mitigation actions in complex sectors such as transport, urban planning and green building.  This new approach in the international climate change negotiations would seem to open the door for a bottom-up approach with flexible bilateral and sectoral opportunities.

For example, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under existing climate policy has mostly excluded from support a vast array of low-cost opportunities for greenhouse gas reduction, due to strict and complex CDM accounting standards and requirements to provide financing only for the additional carbon-reduction components of projects.  While CDM works well in energy, it ignores the realities of the transport and building sectors, where investment decisions are distorted by subsidies, regulations, market-failures, and non-energy related factors. In these areas, substantial greenhouse gas reductions can result from smarter investment and operating policies that boost energy security, cut end-user operating costs, and improve livability, but these require up-front public investment, improved governance and coordination between asset managers, and reforms to pricing structures and market frameworks.

A growing number of countries are looking at how to address these issues by developing Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), which they are invited to submit under the UN climate convention process. Supported NAMAs offer opportunity to define project level or comprehensive approaches to reduce carbon emissions within a sector, without requiring a demonstration that the emission reductions financed would not have happened but for the funding, as CDM requires.  Countries like Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Indonesia are developing transportation NAMAs that invite support from development banks and others to help plan, evaluate, and implement strategies to cut carbon emissions while addressing important national and regional development needs.

These include a variety of proposals being discussed in Cancun. Mexico is looking to enhance bus rapid transit in many cities. Argentina looks to modernize rail lines to divert freight from less efficient trucks, while adapting to climate-change-induced flooding that necessitate raising rail beds and bridges. Belo Horizente, Brazil looks to advance a $2.6 billion comprehensive sustainable urban mobility plan that could cut greenhouse emissions and health-harming particulate pollution by more than a third by 2030 while cutting travel time by a quarter and travel costs by one fifth by expanding public and non-motorized transport options and supporting smarter urban development.

Groups like the Bridging the Gap coalition (, the Partnership for Sustainable Low Carbon Transport, and the GLOBE Alliance ( are helping advance these approaches world-wide in the infrastructure and building sectors in cooperation with governments, investors, and businesses.

Advancing climate policy, building cathedrals, and developing cities and infrastructure seem to hold a lot in common, propelled as they are by a need for vision and a framework that can nurture cooperation and a faith in the future. Many are taking heart that the likely failure of efforts—for now—to win a more comprehensive global climate accord still creates the foundation for progress of a different and very important kind, of the sort that yields cathedrals and better cities.  This won’t be enough to prevent global climate change from rising to alarming levels, but it may be the best we can accomplish for the moment.


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