Finally it seems that the nations of the world have taken a tentative step forward in addressing the issue of climate change. However, there are plenty of skeptics, myself amongst them, who wonder whether governments are really prepared to back their words by actions, or just mutter "hard decisions", shrug shoulders and carry on more or less as normal. For example, it requires charity or credulity to take the UK government's green credentials seriously, as recent months have seen a significant undermining of the renewables industry and the abandonment of investment in carbon capture and storage technologies. No less than 15 policy changes since May's election have destroyed investor confidence in renewables.
One test of governments' resolve is whether they are willing to review planning policies in the light of the Paris agreement. This morning, Planning ministers around the globe should be asking their civil servants to initiate a wide ranging review of planning policy and legislation in their countries to ascertain whether it remains fit for purpose in the light of what their governments signed up to in Paris. Are the policies right, and the powers sufficient, to deliver the adaptation and mitigation required? If not, what needs to change?
I cannot think of any planning systems that have been specifically created for the climate change era. Most were built on a set of assumptions that are 50 or 100 years old. Yes, some have seen adjustments to address aspects of climate change or to make reference to "sustainable development", but have any undergone a root and branch review that begins by giving green issues the kind of priority that the rights of landowners were accorded in the founding legislation?
One litmus test could be here in Scotland, where we have a review of the planning system already underway, and due to report in May 2016. An independent panel was set up by the Scottish government to take evidence and make recommendations. None of the members is a professional planner. A series of questions are posed to respondents in a document over 3 pages long; the word "climate" does not appear in that document.
Many local governments have been ahead of their national governments in taking climate change seriously. I recently wrote on this theme in Planning magazine. While ICLEI has probably led the way, there are others in the developing world playing an important role, such as the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network. One can question the relative lack of rigorous scientific evaluation of the impacts of programmes such as these, but they have been invaluable in mobilising opinion and in generating and testing ideas.
After COP21 such initiatives need to been mainstreamed and scaled up. They should not depend on chasing grants for short-term projects, and real attempts should be made to embed the lessons from these leaders into less proactive local councils. Sustainable transport, active transport, transit-oriented development, sustainable urban drainage, greenspace networks, energy-efficent buildings, conservation of the built and natural environment legacy, water catchment management, effective regulation and enforcement of environmental standards, and proper regulation of the environmental impacts of the agriculture industry are a minimum check-list.
Since we cannot rely on our governments to do what is right for their citizens and the planet rather than what big business and financial markets tell them to do, the professional bodies need to speak out and hold their governments accountable. Across the built environment we should be setting up multi-professional expert groups to produce an independent annual audit of what is happening in their country, and there should be a global collection of, and commentary on, their findings.
The UN summit on cities and human settlements, Habitat III in Quito in October 2016, could be the platform to launch such a programme, if only the planning institutes around the world could raise their eyes and their ambitions, and reach out to their sister professions. COP21 could be a game changer, but only if we care enough to make it one and are prepared to do something about it.