Climate change. It’s a big issue and one that needs some serious focus from local governments. But, in 2020 it was thrust into the spotlight as the world was forced to pause and reflect, with the opportunity to reset. During the pandemic, we all saw first-hand how the environment responded to reduced human activity. Ecosystems previously struggling to cope rejoiced – everything from water quality to air quality improved dramatically and our natural environment took a collective sigh. With many countries around the world going back to business as usual to a degree, how can we use what we learnt during that time to drive long-term change?
Scientists estimate that since the Industrial Revolution, human activity has caused the Earth to warm by around 1°C. Sounds like nothing right? In reality, a one-degree global change is huge – it takes a lot of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land on Earth. While an extra degree doesn’t simply mean we’ll get warmer weather, it can mean changes in our weather patterns with extreme results. Events like flooding, droughts, cold snaps, and fires all become more common, affecting our everyday lives.
Our major cities are a key contributor to climate change (it’s estimated they are responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions) with transport and buildings being the biggest factors. With our planet coming to a stand-still during the global pandemic, Mother Nature celebrated. Residents of Venice admired crystal-clear canals for the first time in years, the Himalayas were visible from northern India for the first time in a generation, lockdown-cleared skies in Germany produced record levels of solar power and London’s nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by around 40%, and these are just some of the changes. So, while living in such a pared-back lockdown-like existence isn’t practical long-term, how can we use this experience as an opportunity to reassess and reset?
A phrase originally coined by the United Nations, we believe, sums up the approach that we need to take going forward. Global lockdowns have proven that a focus on reduced pressure and pollution in our cities drives recognisable change in our environment. Embracing micro cities, reassessing inner-city commutes, and looking at smarter ways of living life and doing business are all ways we can build back better.
Here at home, our cities and regions are evolving. With a population of over 25 million, traditionally a large percentage of this has been clustered in and around the capital cities for employment reasons. But for the last decade, the Australian Government has called for national policy to encourage a better distribution of the population across cities of all sizes. Alongside this, the current $50 million Smart Cities and Suburbs Program is delivering several projects that improve the livability, productivity and sustainability of cities and towns across Australia. This includes smart technology, people-focussed designs and use of data to make continual improvements. The program is aimed to improve liveability in metro areas, and ultimately make towns and cities more desirable places to live.
Pre-COVID, we were already seeing a shift away from capital cities, with the lure of a more balanced lifestyle in the regions – more about that in our previous blog here. In November 2020 alone, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a big shift in people moving from the capital cities to the regions, including a net loss of 14,000 in Sydney and 10,000 in Melbourne in the first half of 2020. This shift is in part due to many employers and employees realising they’re no longer tethered by proximity to the city, and will be aided further by factors like the Australian Governments Regional Connectivity Program. COVID has been a further catalyst for this change, with people reassessing and realising that working away from the office is a seriously viable option.
With technology continually evolving, the need for our population to be concentrated in big cities (or commuting to big cities) decreases. As transport is one of the biggest contributors to global CO2 emissions, this will undoubtedly have a positive impact on our environment. While we might not be living in lockdown-like environmental bliss anytime soon, awareness and change is a big step in the right direction. With the Australian Government investing heavily in creating more liveable, productive, and sustainable cities and towns, it’s an encouraging step in building back better.