change cities sustainability

The beginnings of a bridge across the sustainability gap?

Solar PV
Solar panels on an office roof: a start, but not a solution

The gloomy deliberations of the COP24 deliberations in Katowice focused attention on a problem political, institutional and business leaders are all aware of but have not worked out how to resolve: the gap between aspiration and action.

That gap is evident in a series of increasingly urgent reports from the scientific and policy world. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report shows that the distance between the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and actual carbon emissions is growing when it should be narrowing. The Global Carbon Project shows emissions at a record high. And while naturalists such as David Attenborough warn of the loss of biodiversity, there is little evidence of the impact of this awareness on economic decisions.

In an article in the journal Environmental Science and Policy I suggest change of the scale and depth required will not happen without a fundamental rethinking of the ordinary institutions that form the building blocks of urban life – institutions such as universities and local government.

Such rethinking will not happen through high-profile leadership or flagship low carbon projects. Instead it depends on new knowledge and values permeating organisations and decision-making processes. Crucial to this knowledge transfer are the organisations through which professionals share information and understandings of good practice.

The article is based on research I undertook at Sheffield Hallam University between 2014 and 2017. The research, based on a study of a university, a housing provider and a local authority in northern English cities, found that networks such as the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges and APSE played a central role in establishing and validating new forms of thinking.

But as well as supporting change through peer approval and awards, they may also act to reinforce existing paradigms. This matters because institutional pressures tend to work against change rather than in favour of it: the housing organisation studied, for example, drastically reduced its environmental action after coming under regulatory pressure from the Homes and Communities Agency (now Homes England).

Even where organisations take environmental leadership seriously, the pressure to conform to institutional demands can undermine environmental achievements. The university studied for the research had strong sustainability ambitions backed by targets, but actually failed to achieve its carbon emissions goal over the period of the research. Investment in ‘green’ technologies did not always equal carbon reductions.

The dilemma is summed up in a comment from an environmental manager at the university: ‘We’re not going to say we’re not going to build that building because it will increase our carbon… but we’ll build the building and we’ll try and make sure it is as smart as possible’.

There are always understandable reasons why organisations will prioritise what they see as their core purposes, and treat environmental action as an extra. But in tough financial times the environmental action will not happen unless it is seen as core to an organisation’s purpose – or until a crisis threatens organisational survival.

Time, as the climate evidence keeps reminding us, is not on our side. Yet institutional change is slow and organisations tend to celebrate modest, unchallenging achievements such as the purchase of electric vehicles when they need to be asking fundamental questions about how they can continue to conduct their activities and offer their services in a climate-changed world.

Professional networks, in an unsung but important way, can play a key role in challenging the unambitious thinking that contributes to the growing gaps between hope and reality noted in Katowice.

• ‘Reinterpreting urban institutions for sustainability: How epistemic networks shape knowledge and logics’ is available free of charge at Environmental Science & Policy until 20 January 2019 at

By Julian Dobson

@juliandobson on Twitter, writer and editor on anything to do with place and society. Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Occasional academic and creative writing too.

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