How local government could change the world
Climate disruption and biodiversity loss are our biggest global challenges. But our smallest governments hold the key to doing something about it
Notes from a deep green conservative
IN THE LATE 1860’s a Harvard College mathematics professor, Benjamin Peirce, undertook a curious study.
He estimated that a prominent elm tree near his office had a crop of seven million leaves that, if laid next to each other, would cover a surface of 2 hectares (five acres).
Peirce’s study has recently resurfaced as a touchstone for local and regional urban planners keen to illustrate the vast potential of a single tree’s foliage to absorb carbon dioxide, emit oxygen and provide shade.
Yet local and city governments are still often characterised as political backwaters dealing with the three R’s of provincial life — roads, rates, and rubbish.
Fortunately this perception is slowly changing.
With many larger western governments suffering existential paralysis on environmental issues through fear of losing tax revenues, local governments have the potential to step into the beach.
Research by the UN Development Program estimates that local authorities are responsible for more than 70% of climate change reduction measures.
To many local leaders, unencumbered by the demands of powerful interest groups, better air quality, lower energy costs, improved transport systems and green growth just make political and economic sense.
None of the ideas suggested here are new; in fact, local authorities are doing some of them everyday.
But the results are patchwork and it’s not happening fast enough.
More importantly, we still have very few overarching philosophical or political models to drive consistent environmental change.
With these limitations in mind, here are ways local and city authorities can, and are, tackling climate disruption and biodiversity loss.
After all, it’s by making many small changes that big changes occur.
Industrial scale planting of mixed local species of pioneer plants and trees
In 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that a billion hectares (2.4 billion acres) of global tree plantings by 2050 would do much to reduce climate disruption.
Sounds a lot, but the same study claims we have nearly that much land available for planting anyway.
Again, the idea is not new, but new approaches are needed.
Botanists and horticulturalists are now taking a more holistic approach and realising the benefits of symbiotic mixed plantings of locally sourced species.
Power lines and sewage conduits are often cited as excuses for minimising street plantings. But if big cities can do it, so can suburbs and towns.
Planting on any vacant land available, including road verges, seems far more logical than spending billions on unproven high-tech mechanical options for decarbonizing our atmosphere.
And of course, unlike machines, re-establishing local flora and flora is one of the best ways of managing biodiversity loss.
Rethink urban infrastructure design and transport
Local authorities — shires, counties and councils — have considerable leverage when it comes to shaping a region’s housing, business, transport, work and leisure options. That adds up to a lot of potential for rapid change.
The New Urbanism movement encompasses many of these ideas.
In the short term, providing greater incentives for public transport and restricting motor vehicle use are obvious places to start. Encouraging better ‘last mile’ options like bicycles and electric scooters are also practical solutions.
Urban infill and revitalising CBD’s, even in smaller towns, not only bring communities together, but they also alleviate transport and infrastructure stress.
In the longer term, according to New Urbanists, we should be designing for self-reliant and compact communities (once called villages) that integrate local food production.
Some regions are already land-banking remaining food producing areas close to urban areas to reduce food miles.
Simple changes to civic design codes
Local governments can have a big say in civic design codes, particularly their regulation.
Light coloured road and roof surfaces that reflect rather than absorb heat are important, especially in hotter parts of the world.
Designing smaller, better insulated houses and the retrofitting of existing houses are big energy savers that many local governments are already mandating.
In the longer term, mandating building codes for green, low tech energy efficient buildings may be necessary if the world is to reduce its dependence on building products like aluminium, foils, plastics and other synthetics that are energy-intensive to manufacture.
Rethink the way we collect, store and distribute fresh water
Water is essentially a local issue. It wasn’t so long ago that many houses and buildings had their own rainwater tanks and the ‘can man’ came at night to collect human waste.
Now we expect instant hot and cold high water pressure and full flushing toilets wherever we go. It’s convenient, but it is also resulting in cities and town towns all over the world running out of water.
Here are some well established design tweaks that will help solve some of these problems:
Mandating rainwater harvesting in all new building designs
In many regions this can reduce mains water requirements by up to 100 percent, reducing the need for new dams and desalination plants, protecting environmental flows in rivers and reducing infrastructure costs.
Turning down water pressure
Not surprisingly, studies suggest that turning down municipal water pressures can save up to 30 percent of standard water usage. Lower pressures also result in big infrastructure savings through less wear and tear.
Find alternatives to flushing toilets
Some estimates suggest that up to 90 percent of our municipal freshwater supplies are used for flushing human waste.
We’re also flushing our most valuable source of fertiliser. Alternatives are closed loop flushing systems and industrial scale composting.
Some communities have already successfully invested in systems to do this, but the uptake has been slow and uneven.
Dealing with rubbish and waste has always been a local issue.
What is astounding, however, is the passivity with which local authorities often accept their difficult end role of disposal, but avoid confronting the large outside corporations who bring much of the rubbish into communities as packaging.
With China and Asia increasingly refusing to accept the world’s rubbish for recycling, this is an area that local authorities must learn to address.
Leveraging local taxes
Tax revenues raised and received by local governments vary considerably. But ultimately it is what they choose to do with them that counts. Local communities often have more power than they think.
Some activist local governments have succeeded in shaping their local economies by encouraging green business initiatives like farmers markets, green innovation hubs and so on.
Others are successfully engaging in indirect food and manufacturing mile activism by using their planning powers to protect local businesses and restrict the entry of national and multinational chains into their communities.
While this can lead to short term price rises, this kind of green activism usually boosts property values because many people want this kind of lifestyle amenity.
The power of localism
This is a far from exhaustive list of ways in which local governments of all shapes and sizes are helping reshape the way we live on the planet.
Like locally focused activist groups, their power lies in the fact that they are numerous, diverse and on the ground making practical environmental changes.
And although apathy, convenience and resistance to any change still hold back many communities, arguably the biggest impediments are federalism and centralised economies that try to be all things to all people, but nearly always end up losing connection with local communities.
In the looming showdown between globalists and communities justly claiming back their political and economic sovereignty, local governments will have an increasingly important role to play.
After all, as the American politician Tip O’Neill famously declared “All politics is local”.