Climate Change and Planning: Carbon Control and Spatial Regulation

By While, Aidan | The Town Planning Review, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Climate Change and Planning: Carbon Control and Spatial Regulation


While, Aidan, The Town Planning Review


After a decade of false starts, the goal of radically reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and particularly carbon dioxide, is rising up the political agenda. The renewed urgency of the 'carbon control' agenda reflects a tipping point in political, public and media acceptance of the reality of global warming, its human causes, and the future economic and social costs of inaction. Political commitment to carbon control is also being driven by various other pressures, including the rising cost and instability of oil supplies, and the threats posed by rapid industrialisation in India and China.

At the international level, the desperate search is on for a robust programme for reducing carbon emissions to levels that avoid irreversible and damaging global climate change (currently linked to a 2oC rise in global temperature). Like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the new international programme will be based on the setting of national targets. However, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, these targets will be framed within an agreed set of 'environmental' limits for future greenhouse gas emissions underpinned by broad international support. Clearly there is still much to be negotiated in terms of the distribution of the global emissions quota, but it is a matter of 'when' rather than 'if ' the post-Kyoto target will be set. The geopolitics of carbon control means that the targets will be rigorously monitored and enforced at national and international levels.

Towards a new regulatory era of carbon control

Most Western nations have begun to anticipate the new era of carbon control, with Norway planning to become carbon-neutral by cutting its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 (Vidal, 2007). In the UK, the Stern Review of the economics of climate change (HM Treasury, 2006) has been followed by a succession of policy commitments: a requirement for zero-carbon new housing by 2016; more stringent national targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050; a draft planning policy statement on climate change (DCLG, 2006); ministerial enthusiasm for a personal carbon-trading scheme; and a raft of related policy initiatives across government departments. Political responses have been mirrored by widespread media interest in climate change and a minor publishing boom in carbon calculators and guides to low-carbon lifestyles. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the years 2006-2007 represent a major turning point in attitudes to socio-environmental regulation as a new era of carbon control takes hold. From now on, carbon considerations will exert increasing influence over the choices we make in all aspects of our lives. Moreover, the pace of change will increase rapidly.

There has been a lot of debate about the implications of carbon control for spatial regulation. So far, much of the discussion has focused on the actions required to reduce our carbon footprint: shifting the balance of energy supply away from carbonbased fuels; investing in renewable energy technologies; increased energy efficiency; reducing dependence on car travel; and investing in sustainable transport solutions (Bulkeley, 2006). The new politics of carbon control will bring a new urgency to these policy commitments, most of which have been priorities for well over a decade. However, relatively little has been said in spatial planning circles about what is likely to be the most distinctive aspect of new climate change regimes: the use of carbon quotas and market-based carbon emissions-trading schemes to guide the transition to low-carbon living. This element of carbon-control mitigation has largely gone unexplored because carbon quotas and emissions trading have not yet been rolled out explicitly to places and people.1 Nevertheless, the subnational regulation of carbon emissions through quotas and trading - 'carbon budgeting', to use the UK government's preferred phrase - is clearly on the horizon as one of a set of government responses to the challenge of reducing the global carbon footprint.

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