Banks of windmills are slowly turning in a quiet symbol of the change, and they are everywhere

By Michael Mandl –

I recently attended the Local Government Climate Change Leadership Summit in Copenhagen over the week 29 May to 9 June. Following are some of my observations.

What is clear is that in this region, the Nordic Countries are getting on with sustainability; not wasting time and energy debating it.

The progress is readily observable –  banks of windmills are slowly turning in a quiet symbol of the change, and they are everywhere.

As a result these countries are finding that sustainability is more than just a science, more than a technical means of living on Earth. It has become for some a social binder, encompassing all the tenets of the initial concept of sustainability.

In sustainable towns such as Malmo there is a sense of pride in community that may have been missing before. This brownfield former industrial ship building town has seen resurgence through the adoption of pilot communities in former industrial areas.

Here energy is provided by solar, wind, geothermal and bio gas. No fossil fuels are used. Facing wholesale unemployment and disengagement the town is now, through its adoption of sustainability, foretelling and leading the future.

This community has already done what we all say is too difficult – in a sub-arctic town.

We in Australia have a long way to go before we realise the full growth potential of this way of thinking, of relating, and organising communities.

The conference was very well attended by many nations,including  the US, Croatia, Sweden France Spain, Afghanistan, Australia, China and India.

There was a strong and generous mood of co-operation and agreement. It seemed nobody really came to disagree, rather to see what can be done to swap experiences and information, to learn and to provide leadership for the major December summit.

One of the resoundingly strong themes to arise was that local government is well placed to do what is necessary to advance sustainability in the developed nations. Indeed Local Government is ahead of national governments in many cases. Examples include: Malmo in Sweden; Paris in France and Portland in the US.

Specific topics were reviewed in numerous sessions. The addresses will soon be placed on the summit web site.

Construction and building, we heard, needed to do much more in terms of sustainability as new construction was responsible for 40 per cent of nations’ energy requirements a year – a massive figure.There does not seem to be a consistent measure of embodied energy – energy for construction, energy use, and carbon footprint of buildings.

There is a need to develop and adopt international standards in order to measure existing building stock performance and measure improved performance, we heard. The standards need to be developed across all building types.

Copenhagen conference: discussion on mitigation, adaptation, absorption, the need for local and regional cooperation, the concept of climate justice, carbon capture and storage, drought, waste, transport, and sustainable solutions and challenges for cities, financial mechanisms available to local government, private sector involvement, carbon calculators, renewable energy and energy efficiency in building.

In Australia we seem to have at least certain advances ie NSW’s BASIX for residential buildings and the national NABERS analysis of energy usage.
There do not seem to be the same sense of a common European standard across the various nation states represented in these discussions.

However, Europe seems very much more advanced in sustainability than either the US or most certainly Australia in terms of issues such as accepted political will and a variety of renewable sources of energy contributing to the national grid.

This includes exploration and implementation of wind power, solar power, tidal power and bio gas for power and district heating, geo-thermal energy sources for district heating; far less reliance on coal, but an acceptance of sequesterisation.

There is also an acceptance of demand for product design to incorporate whole of life-cycle sustainability – including the waste cycle – and general support for the cost of recycling to be included in the price of the original product.

An other issue to emerge was that there is growing recognition that the developing nations, who have contributed the least to global warming, and who are often in low lying or semi arid regions, are likely to suffer the consequences of global warming earlier and more severely than developed nations.

Accordingly there is a widely held view that developed nations will have to provide support in terms of technical knowledge and perhaps financial support to allow developing nations the chance to increase their living standards but without increasing their carbon footprint.

These issues were placed before the summit by the Chinese, the Afghanis and many others.

There was also a salutary warning from a scientist advising the Danish Government, who clearly stated that estimates of rates of global warming provided in recent years have now been found to be conservative and that the rate of warming is more rather than less rapid than initially estimated.

Sessions included discussion on mitigation, adaptation, absorption, the need for local and regional cooperation, the concept of climate justice, carbon capture and storage, drought, waste, transport, and sustainable solutions and challenges for cities, financial mechanisms available to local government, private sector involvement, carbon calculators, renewable energy and energy efficiency in buildings.

Through this vast range of topics there was an overwhelming consensus that action is needed now, and it was refreshing for an Australian to find so many international local community leaders so committed to a sustainable future.

It found that when communities develop sustainable models they are accepted very positively by the local community. The summit also found that Local Government, because if its connectivity to the local community, is in the best position to get real improvements in sustainability in many ways.

The difference between a risk and an opportunity is how soon you discover it.

The Summit concluded with a call to the next round of talks in Copenhagen in December.

Michael Mandl is director, GroupGSA