The climate crisis is real. It’s not a drill. If we do nothing, Barcelona and the planet will become uninhabitable for future generations.
with an action plan and a budget of 563 million euros
We are talking about a profound transition in every aspect of the city: its productive system, its people, how we work, how we move around, etc. The challenge is enormous, but not acting is too risky.
This is, in fact, a good news post. Just when we’re wondering if leadership on the climate exists, a city steps up to the challenge with real action to decarbonise, prepare for climate emergency events – and become more beautiful in the process. Barcelona shows that climate action means life for its inhabitants becomes cooler, more equitable, with more opportunities (and fresher food!)
First, I’ll highlight the biggest departure from convention. Barcelona has set a new standard in climate data presentation. Here’s Barcelona’s standard emissions pie-chart:
These are emissions counted on a city level, but the activity of some infrastructures such as the port and airport also has a big impact.
An approximate calculation of port and airport emissions – the big transport infrastructures – has been made that goes beyond those currently assigned to the city for those infrastructures in the Climate Plan, in order to make them co-responsible. The following figures therefore include the emissions from their activity, counting flights from Barcelona Airport and the emissions from shipping routes linked to port activity encompassing the routes, which could be four times the city’s GHG emissions.
Responsibility for these emissions has previously been left to the industries to contain, not assigned to countries or cities. Since this approach has failed, Barcelona’s emergency declaration brings these big polluters into the planning process. The plan acknowledges the challenge of:
Involving, in terms of commitments, agreements and investment, the competent public authorities in transport infrastructures, such as the port and airport.
The intention is to rationalise the use of the port and airport, switch to rail where possible, and provide the infrastructure needed for electrification. They will:
Work for a taxation system with a markedly environmental character for vessels in the Port of Barcelona and the aviation sector.
If the intention to avert climate catastrophe is genuine, every city needs to do the same.
These summaries somewhat understate the scale and pace of the actual measures being taken:
Change of urban model: measures to transform 15 km of streets into green routes in the next five years, add 40 hectares of urban greenery and carry out work in the areas around 200 schools, transforming them into greener and more accessible places.
Change of energy model: backing for the generation of renewable and local energies in housing blocks and municipal facilities, more energy renovation grants for buildings and a new energy by-law for new buildings.
Change of economic model: definition of a green, blue and circular economy for the whole city, as with the Besòs area, incorporation of environmental criteria, sustainability and the social and solidarity economy in public procurement.
Change of food model: promotion of healthy low-carbon diets in municipal dining halls, opening and promotion of the wholesalers’ market for fresh organic local produce at Mercabarna in 2021.
Change of consumption and waste model: roll-out of the zero-waste strategy citywide, increase in selective waste disposal up to 65%, elimination of single-use plastics.
Change of cultural and education model: financial support for projects helping towards the goals of the climate plan and the climate emergency declaration, promotion of goals against the climate emergency at large events and international congresses in the city.
Taking care of health, well-being and environmental quality: activation of a hundred municipal facilities as climate shelters, backing for environmental impact studies on motor vehicles.
Taking care of water: reduction of domestic water usage by up to 100 litres per day per inhabitant, increased sewerage capacity to cut the risk of flooding and spillage at beaches during heavy rain, definition of strategies to protect beaches and the banks of the Llobregat and Besòs rivers.
So I’ll highlight a few points. Barcelona’s climate plan from 2018 was already recognised as “the best climate plan among major European cities”, receiving an award from the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. The emissions reduction targets for 2030 in the 2018 plan, based on the Paris commitments:
Reduce per capita GHG emissions by 45% compared to 2005
and were altered by this emergency plan to reflect the international understanding that stricter targets are required to keep temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees:
a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 compared to the levels in 1990.
Barcelona’s challenges in urban planning are different to Auckland’s:
As a dense, compact, Mediterranean city, Barcelona consumes little energy and generates few emissions compared to other cities but it has a very long way to go…
*All images marked with * are from the Ajuntament de Barcelona website or the Barcelona 2020 Green and Biodiversity Plan.
Increasing liveability through more green space and less traffic are important:
The metropolitan city of Barcelona is compact, with high residential density, an old housing stock, with a shortage of green spaces and a mobility system that is over-dependent on motor vehicles…. We want a comfortable, traffic-calmed city with lots of green spaces that contribute to people’s good health and well-being, and biodiversity.
There will be 100 climate shelters for emergency climate events, biodiversity nodes, nature reserves, urban green corridors, shaded areas and 40 hectares of new public green space.
Despite the differences in urban form, the transport solutions required are similar. We need to reallocate traffic lane space to other modes to enable people to get out of their cars. Barcelona needs to do the same to provide the green space they need:
Step up the scale and pace of the Superblock programme (see below).
Transform 15 km of streets into green axes by 2024.
Protect schools with environmental and road safety measures. Action at 200 schools up to 2024.
Barcelona’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) doesn’t rely on electrification alone to solve transport’s carbon emissions burden. The 2018 Climate Plan set a 2030 target to:
Reduce private motor vehicle journeys by 20%.
There’s action on goods vehicles, parking, dedicated spaces, and new taxes for the goods distribution of big tech platforms. There’ll be new buslanes on the main access roads, and cycle lane improvements. And in addition to ramping up the Superblock Programme, they will:
further promote the use of public transport, with new pricing which cuts the cost of frequent-use tickets by up to 25%.
Improve interchanges, both on-street and in stations
Increase the number of traffic-calmed streets, where maximum priority is given to pedestrians
Speed reductions so on most streets traffic speed is less than 30 km/h
The city will invest beyond the urban boundary:
Increase investment in commuter and regional trains to improve regional public rail transport
And from day one:
the use of planes will be restricted for all municipal staff (councillors and people working in public companies and associated autonomous bodies). Journeys under 1,000 km will be made by train if the journey time does not exceed 7 hours, except for unusual circumstances.
Flights between Barcelona and Madrid currently pollute twelve times more than the same journey made by train.
With more action to come:
Study the withdrawal of short flights with an alternative by train… while boosting the high-speed and long-distance rail network and encouraging the creation of night trains, ensuring affordable prices.
There is support for solar power installations and renovation to make buildings more energy efficient.
The plan calls the government to implement:
the Climate Change Act, including fiscal measures (tax on Co2-e, climate fund, etc.)
Tourism is not off-limits, with legislation changes to allow new tourist taxes. The whole sector is now under scrutiny:
Study Barcelona’s tourism carrying capacity in sustainability, climate and social terms. Reduce tourist activity emissions.
Radical change could come from taking aim at the heart of the problem:
The current economic model is based on continuous growth and a never-ending race for profits… the global ecological crisis and the climate crisis in particular are largely due to excessive consumption on the part of the rich countries and, above all, the wealthiest social groups… We are faced with the challenge of transforming… into a culture that recognises planetary limits and fosters sustainable ways of life.
And personnel and funding is provided to help make this cultural shift.
Barcelona is expecting a loss of between 30% and 46% of useful sand area on most beaches. In the worst-case scenario, Sant Sebastià beach could practically disappear.
Some reasons why Barcelona’s emergency action plan is not just hot air:
1/ Barcelona’s track record is good. Against a backdrop of increasing emissions in the country as a whole, Barcelona took its C40 membership seriously and is now one of thirty C40 cities whose carbon emissions are dropping.
2/ Barcelona’s plan has a strong public mandate, having been initiated by climate marches last year, and written by:
the Climate Emergency Committee… set up… in accordance with the City Council Regulation on Citizen Participation, to define specific measures to be developed for tackling the climate emergency effectively.
The process would be worth studying. I can’t find mention of any need for further consultation. I did find mention of consultation about an existing green axis project. The engagement was to decide details, not to determine whether it would proceed. In Auckland, the risk of consultation watering down the actions in the Climate Action Framework is high. Change is imperative, so should the engagement process have had better mandate for action from the beginning?
3/ The plan is ambitious but this Climate Emergency Committee is:
the forum where the City Council will be held to account for any progress made and fulfilment of the commitments it has taken on…
4/ By incorporating the big polluters into the planning process, the inequity that creates so much citizen despondency and inaction is challenged.
5/ Barcelona has become comfortable with taking bold and innovative steps. Their Superblock concept – developed to address climate, air quality and social equity challenges – has become “best practice”, and is being adapted for use in cities around the world, including Paris. It works on the same principles as the circulation plan of Ghent, Belgium and the UK’s low-traffic Mini-Holland schemes.
Resident satisfaction and international praise for the Superblocks means Barcelona has been rewarded for its innovation and boldness, so change has become progressively easier. This is in contrast to the political hurdles facing cities where insufficient progress taken by conservative politicians has increased social tension, and therefore delayed progress even further.
6/ The action plan includes many short-term actions, which help to build momentum towards the longer-term ones:
a hundred robust, urgent and effective measures to speed up the way the city adapts to climate episodes in the next few years and mitigate the effects in the short to mid-term.
Long-term goals without such supporting short-term actions can result in targets simply being revised.
7/ Responsibility for each measure is devolved to the organisation delivering it.
Trees in pots helped reclaim public space from cars when the first Superblocks were implemented. Now some of Barcelona’s streets will become “green axes”. Image Credit: Maysun for Vox, from part two of David Roberts’ Vox series on the Barcelona Superblocks.
While Barcelona’s emergency declaration commits to changing the models for how the city works, Auckland’s emergency declaration commits to continuing what Council is doing:
Auckland needs to implement a framework that directs every aspect of our city’s activities. We have at least as much need as Barcelona has to plan for air travel and shipping, and to rationalise the use of our port and airport.
In terms of the emissions conventionally assigned to the cities, Auckland’s carbon footprint per capita (6.3 t CO2e in 2016) is fully three times that of Barcelona’s (2.1 t CO2e in 2017). Yes, a lot of that difference is because we’re a sprawling city whereas Barcelona is a compact one.
But why do we choose to continue to sprawl?
Last week’s announcement of borrowing our children’s money to spend $5.3 billion on roads, $3.8 billion of which is for 82 km of duplicate highways, was funding for yet more sprawl. The sprawl roads that Auckland is getting were even on our mayor’s wishlist. It’s big money, better spent on direct intensification measures. Instead, it’ll push our emissions up further, while adding yet more maintenance and financial burden to future generations.
Our five years of C40 membership should have seen us well on our way to developing a people-focused and sustainable city.
Barcelona’s leadership can inspire our people, even as it highlights our politicians’ folly. Can it inspire our politicians to change tack?