Shift to renewables must increase fivefold to limit warming to 1.5 C. CO2 is still rising and we are off track

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Climate action must be increased fivefold to limit warming to the 1.5C rise above pre-industrial levels that scientists advise, according to the UN. But the past four years have been the hottest on record and global emissions are rising again after a brief pause. 

“Looking at the monthly figures, it’s as if you can see the planet ‘breathing’ as the levels of CO2 fall and rise with the seasonal cycle of plant growth and decay in the northern hemisphere,” said Prof Richard Betts, at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre. “The graph is a thing of beauty, but also a stark reminder of human impact on climate. Each year’s CO2 is higher than the last, and this will keep happening until humans stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere.”

“This news is worrying and compelling,” said Prof Nick Ostle, at Lancaster University. “It represents a call to innovate with rapid and radical responses to offset these growing emissions.” He said cuts in fossil fuel use, deforestation and emissions from livestock were needed: “It’s a massive challenge but there are real opportunities to make an impact individually and globally.”

The Met Office has a good record of forecasting global CO2 levels and predicts that the average rise over 2019 will be 2.75 parts per million (ppm). That would put it among the highest annual rises in the 62 years since good records began.

Only years with strong El Niño events, 1998 and 2016, are likely to be higher. The rise in 2016 was 3.39ppm. In the decade after the first measurement on the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa in 1956, annual rises were less than 0.9ppm per year.

An El Niño event occurs when the tropical Pacific swings into a warm phase, causing many regions to have warmer and drier weather. Trees and plants are natural carbon sinks because they absorb CO2 as they grow, but this is reduced in El Niño years.

“This year we expect these carbon sinks to be relatively weak, so the impact of record high human-caused emissions will be larger than last year,” said Betts.

“It never rains but it pours,” said Prof Dave Reay, at the University of Edinburgh. “Our own CO2 emissions are still increasing, and now the world’s natural carbon sinks are set for a bad year too. We know these sinks have been mopping up around half of all our emissions to date. We can only hope their faltering in 2019 is just a short-term blip, as without their help any chance of a safer climate future will turn to dust.”

Prof Jos Barlow, also at Lancaster University, said the rising destruction of forests is serious concern: “This has been a particularly bad year. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased to around 8,000 square kilometres in 2018, which is equivalent to losing a football pitch of forest every 30 seconds. There are also worrying signs that deforestation is occurring at a faster rate in other Amazonian countries, such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.”

Big rise in atmospheric CO2 expected in 2019. Met Office researchers say they expect to record one of the biggest annual rises in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in 2019, reports BBC News: “Every year, the Earth’s natural carbon sinks such as forests soak up large amounts of CO2 produced by human activities. But in years when the tropical Pacific region is warmer like this year, trees and plants grow less and absorb smaller amounts of the gas. As a result, scientists say 2019 will see a much bigger CO2 rise than 2018.” The Guardian quotes Prof. Richard Betts at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre: “Looking at the monthly figures, it’s as if you can see the planet ‘breathing’ as the levels of CO2 fall and rise with the seasonal cycle of plant growth and decay in the northern hemisphere…The graph is a thing of beauty, but also a stark reminder of human impact on [the] climate. Each year’s CO2 is higher than the last, and this will keep happening until humans stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere.” The Independent says scientists describe the prediction as “worrying and compelling”. The Evening Standard is among the other publications carrying the news.

Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Union trade commissioner, has called for more ambition on issues such as climate change as a way to unite the bloc around a single vision. “We need a great debate on the future of Europe,” she said in a wide-ranging speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on the state of the continent and the rise of populism. (Europe should be more ambitious on climate change – EU’s Malmstrom).

Meanwhile, Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez has told business leaders in Davos that neoliberalism is at an end and his country was ready to lead a progressive global ecological transition. “The ecological transition, which has started to be known in many forums as the Green New Deal, should not instil fear,” he said, adding: “[Spain is] in a privileged position to lead this change. We know what to do, and we are going to do it.”(Climate Home News)  Separately, EurActiv has a feature about “energy sobriety”, which it says is a “disruptive notion catching on in France”.

US off track to reach climate goals as oil and gas production expand The Guardian reports that the US could become a net energy exporter by next year as oil and gas production expands, according to new projections from the US Energy Information Administration. The newspaper adds: “America is becoming increasingly reliant on natural gas – a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change but less so than coal. Solar power will grow rapidly too. Both will replace nuclear and coal power plants that are more expensive. But the rapid shift toward natural gas and a slow-down in weaning off coal will put the US far behind the global climate change goals scientists say are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of rising temperatures. EIA data projects that by 2050, CO2 levels from energy use will decline only about 2.5%, starting at 5,147m metric tons in 2017 and ending at 5,019 in 2050.” Meanwhile, Axios has an “exclusive” that a “bipartisan handful of House members are introducing carbon tax legislation after first floating it late last year…Florida Democrat Ted Deutch unveiled the bill with a few other Democrats and one Republican. The bill would impose an initial $15-per-ton carbon ‘fee’ on fossil fuel producers, processors and importers that rises $10 annually.” Separately, the Hill reports that a GOP lawmaker [Brian Fitzpatrick] says he would likely back a Democratic-drafted resolution to show support for the Paris climate change agreement.

There is continuing coverage of a new study which says it had “found the strongest link yet between climate change, conflict and migration”. E&E News says: “The report released by authors at the University of East Anglia looked at asylum applications for 157 countries between 2006 and 2015. It found that in certain years and certain contexts, warming-related drought sparked conflicts that sent refugees abroad. The study found the clearest climate fingerprint on the violent conflicts that erupted in western Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa between 2011 and 2015 and that resulted in migration. Climate change had a hand in the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria between 2010 and 2012. Outward migration after those conflicts is indirectly linked to climate change, according to the report.” Reuters quotes Alex Randall, programme manager for the Climate and Migration Coalition, which was not involved in the new study. Randall says the researchers’ findings “were important in establishing the causal chain” between climate change as a driver of war which then forces people to flee and become refugees. He adds that “such analysis – while tracking only a small part of movement linked to climate change around the world – could be useful to inform aid policies in at-risk regions”. Meanwhile, National Geographic carries a story under the headline: “Climate change creates a new migration crisis for Bangladesh.”

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Reimagining the Urban Form: Austin’s Community Mobility Hub

With the arrival of the automobile, our cities began a century-long process of transformation through design practices that prioritize the use of personal vehicles. Cities widened once-walkable and vibrant streets into traffic arterials; they displaced entire neighborhoods to make way for highways; and they replaced countless acres of natural ecologies with parking lots. Although these methods were originally justified as a tool for reducing congestion, they most often worsened traffic, made public transit less viable and more difficult to use, and required the use of an automobile. Our dependence on automobiles has worsened public health, saddled cities with debt from massive infrastructure expenditures, disproportionately burdened low-income households with transportation costs that often account for the majority of household expenses, and contributed significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Rocky Mountain Institute recently led a pilot project to tackle those problems.

The Community Mobility Hub

This past summer, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, RMI launched a Community Mobility Hub pilot in Austin, Texas, to demonstrate a scalable approach to tackling the environmental, health, and equity impacts of our mobility system, including the urban design patterns that are so interconnected with it. This effort was influenced, in part, by the concept of mobility hubs in other cities, including Toronto, San Diego, and Austin, which tend to feature long-term infrastructure investments and high-capacity transit stations, along with traditional carshare and bikeshare.

RMI saw an opportunity to build on aspects of this existing approach by quickly introducing an array of experimental mobility services and urban space improvements in neighborhoods with little or no access to mobility services, high-frequency transit, or public gathering space. RMI’s recent report, Reimagining the Urban Form: Austin’s Community Mobility Hub, documents the pilot and its results.

The short-term goals of the pilot were to (1) provide or enhance walkable access to healthful food and social gathering space and (2) enhance access to—and user experience associated with—a variety of personal-car-alternative mobility services.

Improving 12th and Chicon

To identify a suitable location in Austin, the team developed selection criteria designed to ensure the Community Mobility Hub could meet its short-term goals and provide an applicable test case for other cities wishing to reduce emissions and pollution and enhance health and equity through improved urban spaces and new mobility services. The criteria included:

  • Walkability and bike-friendliness
  • Lack of high-frequency transit
  • Demographic diversity
  • Level of need to improve health
  • Proximity to housing and businesses

Based on these criteria, the team ultimately selected the neighborhood in proximity to the intersection of E. 12th St. and Chicon St. in East Austin as the site for the pilot.

In collaboration with mobility service companies (including Capital Metro, Car2Go, JUMP bikes, Lime, Bird, and Lyft), an Austin-based public engagement firm (Public City), a number of community organizations (including Mission Possible, the 12th St. Merchant’s Association, and Six Square), global leaders in urban design and health (including Gehl, Gehl Institute, and Better Block), and the City of Austin, RMI designed and implemented a neighborhood-based access point for mobility, where public transit and new mobility services are readily available for use. Improvements to the site included the addition of two carsharing parking spots, a planned charging hub for JUMP’s electric bikes, more Lime and Bird electric scooters, discounted Lyft rides to and/or from the area, and more.

The team also introduced a number of urban space improvements intended to enhance the experience of accessing services and using the space around them. These included added shading, trees, a variety of plants, and food trucks to transform a space that had been largely dedicated to personal vehicles.

Pilot Results

RMI incorporated the use of Gehl Institute’s public space assessment methodology to conduct extensive community engagement, public surveys, direct observation, and desktop research. The team observed a 25 percent increase in walk trips; a more than doubling of “dwell time” (the amount of time people chose to spend in the area); a 39 percent decrease in automobile use; a decrease in reported transportation challenges in the area; and an improvement in mobility service user experience. The Community Mobility Hub launch also coincided with a citywide increase in use of shared e-scooters and bikes. The team ultimately found that Community Mobility Hubs contribute to reduced greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, reduced obesity and enhanced respiratory health, and enhanced mental health and well-being.

Community Mobility Hubs contribute to reduced GHG emissions and pollution, reduced obesity and enhanced respiratory health, and enhanced mental health and well-being.

RMI’s Community Mobility Hub demonstrates a need and opportunity to activate surrounding areas with additional services and space improvements. The inclusion of the word “community” in RMI’s adaptation of the mobility hub was meant to reflect the importance of creating a context-sensitive and community-driven approach to transforming neighborhoods globally.

 RMI’s approach can be adopted in neighborhoods globally to improve the health, emissions, and equity impacts of city design and how it interacts with personal mobility.

Download Reimagining the Urban Form: Austin’s Community Mobility Hub.

View the webinar Experimentation at the Interface of Urban Design and New Mobility: Environmental, Health, and Equity Implications for Cities