Cities, the built environment, climate change and decarbonising urban lifestyles

by John R. Bryson, Louise Reardon, Lauren Andres and Aksel Ersoy

Reducing the negative impacts of climate change requires revolutionary changes to urban lifestyles. Decarbonising the urban realm requires the alignment of alterations in transport, employment, spatial planning, and architecture to encourage and force alterations in social norms and related behavioural changes. Behaviour is embedded in deep seated expectations and practices.

The political, policy and academic debate has over-emphasized the development of technological solutions and efficiency savings to support the creation of low-carbon pathways (the supply side) and neglected a focus on why we require and use energy in the first place (the demand side). The latter highlights the importance of individual and collective actions and localised measures to support people with very diverse needs. Decarbonising the urban realm is a process requiring the alignment, and rebalancing of technological innovations with lifestyle alterations. This requires systemic and revolutionary change. This opinion piece identifies the extent of this challenge and, in so doing, provides a framework to guide policy development to accelerate global action towards the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to climate change: each place needs a unique blend of solutions. Climate change mitigation and adaption requires coordinated multi-scalar solutions – from households to streets and cities to nations. Everything must change including infrastructure provision, movement and flows of people, raw materials and products, and everyday living. This requires major alterations in approaches to planning and managing cities that will disrupt existing lifestyles. The built environment must be transformed to support short, medium and long-term changes. Different places and population cohorts must develop and apply different forms of mitigations and adaptations reflecting local circumstances. These include extraordinary global cities and more ordinary places including smaller towns and rural areas.

Decarbonising urban lifestyles can therefore only be achieved by focusing on process rather than output, a process that includes three interlinked activities:

1)     Defining the extent of the challenge by applying a whole-systems approach to decarbonising urban lifestyles with a focus on systemic understanding.

2)     Highlighting core risks related to behavioural adaptations including identifying barriers to change including existing norms and expectations.

3)     Setting out a series of policy pathways to facilitate rapid decarbonisation of urban lifestyles.

Each will be explored in turn.

Defining the extent of the challenge and applying a whole-systems approach

In urban areas, climate change requires the creation and application of a whole-systems approach to the challenge of decarbonising urban lifestyles. This requires appreciation of the complexity and diversity of urban ecosystems and in identifying multi-scalar intervention points. Such an approach must be applied rapidly and systematically to all local contexts. Policy development must focus on the intersections between supply and demand informed by a detailed appreciation of different forms of urban living with attention given to intersectional challenges and blockages stressing socio-economic and spatial inequalities. This includes identifying energy-intensive lifestyles (and the ways in which these are produced, incentivised, normalised), infrastructure systems and production systems.

Consumption patterns differ between places and cohorts resulting in different degrees of carbon-intensive lifestyle. The most vulnerable cohorts tend to have less carbon-intensive lifestyles and it is these groups that will be most exposed to the negative impacts of climate change. A core challenge is identifying and understanding different urban lifestyles and the extent to which they reflect different forms of carbon intensity. This is about awareness, learning and developing understanding as well as being about responsibilities and communication. Culture is important in this context. Celebrity lifestyles, for example, are extremely carbon-intensive and play an important role in encouraging aspirational carbon-intensive lifestyles.

The application of a whole-systems approach to decarbonizing urban lifestyles must focus on:

1)     Identifying and redesigning existing urban infrastructures (for example the utilities and mobility/connectivity related infrastructures) that underpin carbon-intensive urban living.

2)     Identifying manufacturing systems that support and underpin carbon-intensive lifestyles including product design, packaging, and logistics with related approaches to recycling. 

3)     Develop a household informed understanding of the carbon-intensity of different approaches to urban living.

4)     Promoting individual and collective ethical responsibilities and awareness to gather altruist momentum and a sense of ownership in tacking the climate crisis.

Barriers to adaptation and decarbonising urban lifestyles

All places are in a continual state of becoming, as individuals, groups and organisations adapt to processes of change and transformation occurring at different speeds and rhythms. The recent pandemic has highlighted the importance of temporary and more permanent adaptations for places and people. These processes of adaptation are place specific, even idiosyncratic, as decisions that have been made in the past influence and, in many cases, determine current investments. All cities are the outcome of path-dependent layers of decisions. This path dependency provides place-based distinctiveness as processes of ongoing incremental decision-making shape the physical, social and economic environments of place, but in turn creates barriers to change given the established intersections between supply and demand.  

Urban lifestyles are based upon conventions that have been created locally, nationally, and culturally. A convention is a constraint on action. These conventions, norms, or regularities are incorporated into routines that create specific forms of urban living. In urban areas, conventions include approaches to infrastructure provision, spatial planning, the design of residential units, consumption, approaches to mobility, and the everyday enactment of urban lifestyles.

Existing conventions and routines represent core barriers to adaptation and mitigation to climate change and to decarbonising urban lifestyles. Existing carbon-intensive urban lifestyles are the outcome of bundles of carbon-intensive routines that have formed to support specific cohorts’ expectations and attitudes to urban living. They sit within wider systems, typically neo-liberal planning and the financialization of cities which tend to privilege speed and density to the detriment of people and places. A whole systems approach must be applied to identifying and understanding these bundles of routines that underpin carbon-intensive urban lifestyles and how they are grounded in wider approaches to the urban which in turn needs to be challenged.

Existing approaches to managing urban economies highlight the importance of ‘growth’ combined with ‘productivity’. Both these are conventions that drive carbon-intensive lifestyles. Growth is driven by consumption and decisions made at the level of the household regarding expenditure.  Every household expenditure decision creates and sustains employment, but also creates environmental pollution. These decisions must rapidly focus on developing carbon-light urban lifestyles. This requires informed consumer decision-making reflecting an appreciation of the relationship between consumer decisions and climate change as well as behavioural change. In the Netherlands, the Dutch government’s ambition is to create gas free neighbourhoods, but homeowners have autonomy regarding the implementation of measures to decarbonise residential heating/cooling. This process requires carbon-intensive consumption options to be priced-out of the market through regulation and taxation. Currently, the expectation is that urban living will continue with limited adaptations. A good example is the replacement of the internal combustion engine (ICE) with carbon-light alternatives as the premise is that highly mobile urban lifestyles can continue.

A key barrier is found in incumbent technology. In the UK, the failure to develop a viable commercial alternative to the gas boiler will hold back decarbonisation. A gas boiler ban is being imposed from 2025 on installations in new residential units. Nevertheless, 85% of UK homes are heated by gas and a ban on all carbon-intensive heating appliances needs to be applied urgently. One challenge is the impact that this would have on incumbent manufacturers. Similarly, the shift towards e-commerce, the Internet-of-things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is reliant on carbon intensive server farms; zero carbon new technologies must only be adopted. This highlights the tensions between a range of priorities which are underpinned by political choices and agendas.

National and local policy must acknowledge that the continuation of existing urban lifestyles is impossible and that new approaches to urban living must develop. The challenge is that these alterations require radical and immediate change. COVID-19 has highlighted that rapid adaptation to a major societal crisis is possible. The danger is that the post-pandemic city will reflect attempts to return to pre-pandemic approaches to urban living. This is to be expected; existing conventions and routines will encourage households to return to pre-pandemic form of consumption. A good example is the emphasis that is being placed on supporting and encouraging tourism including the return of air travel; only a small proportion of people fly, and an even smaller proportion are frequent flyers. The emphasis that is being placed on ‘building back better’ must include the decarbonisation of all urban lifestyles and radical alterations in demand. Here political commitment at all levels is key along with political leadership. This involves the introduction of radical deterrents; taxation must be targeted at the small proportions of high-income earners with carbon-intensive lifestyles.

Pathways to decarbonizing urban lifestyles – levelling up and levelling down

A critical barrier to decarbonisation of urban lifestyles is the absence of a highly visible and on-going debate on the need to make radical alterations to demand that would be reflected in urban lifestyle transformation. The existing approach assumes adaptation is possible based on incremental change; radical changes are required in which the outcome must be near to carbon-neutral urban lifestyles.  Decarbonising urban lifestyles must be grounded in a concern for environmental justice. The danger is that policy will be influenced by the advantaged and will result in interventions that exacerbate existing forms of disadvantage, exclusion, and vulnerability within urban landscapes. The most advantaged will need to make the most radical lifestyle adjustments.

Developing new policy pathways to facilitate rapid decarbonisation of urban lifestyles requires the following actions to be taken by all governments:

1)     Invest in research focusing on identifying key intervention points including understanding the drivers and facilitators of carbon-intensive urban lifestyles.

2)     Apply a whole-systems approach to encourage and compel urban lifestyle adaptation. Carbon-intensive products, and related production processes, must be identified, replaced, or removed.

3)     Major alterations to approaches to spatial or urban planning are required. Cities have been planned and developed to support and encourage carbon-intensive lifestyles. Spatial planning must be revised to facilitate the decarbonisation of urban living.

4)     Prioritising flexibility over permanence and placing temporary urbanism at the forefront of new approaches to planning and managing cities focusing on the quality of decarbonised urban lifestyles.

5)     A return to living locally must be at the basis of the development of new decarbonised lifestyles. This includes applying planning to encourage the formation of 20-minute neighbourhoods and promoting the circular city. Everyday living should be based on walking, cycling and carbon neutral forms of mobility with an emphasis placed on ensuring that most household everyday needs are available within a 20-minute return walk. This requires the application of holistic approaches to urban planning.

6)     To reduce resource dependency, and the ecological footprint of cities, the flows of resources (input–throughput–output) of different urban functions (housing, industry, transport, etc.) should be analysed, and policies developed to force the reuse of resources, through principles of cascading (the subsequent use of resources for different functions based on the quality of the resource needed for the functions). This would require new approaches towards urban infrastructure governance.

7)     The policy emphasis on levelling-up the most vulnerable must also focus on levelling-down carbon-intensive lifestyles.

8)     Environmental justice must be central to the decarbonising urban lifestyles agenda. This includes acknowledging the importance of local solutions identified by local communities. All governments should encourage and facilitate processes of alternative-substitute place-making that represent a form of citizen-led place making but with a focus on decarbonising urban lifestyles.

9)     Approaches that have been developed in the Global South should be identified and acknowledged as providing opportunities for informing new approaches to planning and living in cities. There is a tendency to assume that the best ideas come from the Global North.

The COP26 Policy Challenge and Decarbonizing Lifestyles

The policy focus must focus on coupling supply and demand-side interventions. At the moment it is difficult for consumers to decarbonise their lifestyles – the structures, including societal norms and expectations, underpinning lifestyles incentivise high-carbon practices. These are hard to change, however we can start with more knowledge of the problem and our individual carbon footprints. All products and services must come with a mandated grading of their relative carbon-intensity. This must be based on an agreed methodology for calculating total carbon-intensity. Consumers would be able to make informed choices based on embedded carbon – this is not all of the story, but it is an important part of it. Governments would be able to introduce carbon-intensity sales taxes to encourage demand- and supply-side adaptations. The first government to introduce this approach will be the first to take Climate Change seriously.