August 2015 archive

A values-based call for climate action

Over 20 scholars, academics and activists from across the Muslims world came together earlier this month to issue a Declaration on Global Climate Change.  I was genuinely impressed with the content of the declaration and believe it has the potential to be a powerful call for action.

Besides the fact that it speaks to one of the largest audiences on the planet, the declaration encompasses key messages and principles which are too often forgotten.  It addresses everyone from national leaders and their people to the business community, and does not shy away from specifically calling on ‘well-off nations and oil-producing states’.

The Declaration begins with a preamble that draws on the recent scientific reports by the UNEP (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) and the UNFCCC.  It moves on to affirm the creation of Earth in perfect equilibrium and the human-caused catastrophe resulting from the disruption of the balance.  It recognises both mankind’s abilities and limitations, as well as our accountability for our actions.  Finally it calls on people, organisations, and countries to take meaningful, far-sighted, and immediate action.

I have included my favourite five quotes below.

1 – Fundamental flaw

We note with alarm the combined impacts of rising per capita consumption combined with the rising human population.

Similar to the World Environment Day slogan I mentioned in a previous post, this statement highlights perhaps the most fundamental flaw in our current way of life: over-consumption.  Coupled with a 7+ billion population, the flaw turns into a catastrophe.

2 – Yes we can

We recognize that we are but a miniscule part of the divine order, yet within that order, we are exceptionally powerful beings, and have the responsibility to establish good and avert evil in every way we can.

If that is not empowering, then I don’t know what is!  Even better, it is both humbling and empowering.

Islamic Declaration_participants

Participants in the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium


3 – With great power comes great responsibility

Intelligence and conscience behoove us, as our faith commands, to treat all things with care and awe (taqwa) of their Creator, compassion (rahmah) and utmost good (ihsan).

Imagine if we held this statement in mind every time we came to make a decision, whether it was what food to eat, what shirt to buy, what holiday to book or what business to run.  How different would our choices be?  How different would our Earth be?

4 – Enough is enough

We call upon the Conference of the Parties (COP)…to bring their discussions to an equitable and binding conclusion.

Do you know that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) held it’s first session in November 1988…that’s right, 27 years ago.

5 – Fresh solutions

We call on the people of all nations and their leaders to…set in motion a fresh model of wellbeing, based on an alternative to the current financial model which depletes resources, degrades the environment, and deepens inequality.

Let us not kid ourselves, addressing a fundamental flaw requires a fundamental change in the way we run our economies and our lives. The good news is that if we do manage to get out of the box of the current ‘growth forever’ financial / consumption model, we can address economic, environmental, and social challenges all at the same time.

While it might seem like a daunting mission, I truly believe that we are beginning to make progress towards a more balanced existence, and that we have the ability to get there in the coming few decades.

The missing hierarchy

If you’ve engaged in the thinking around sustainability even from afar, then you’ve probably come across the energy hierarchy, water hierarchy, and waste hierarchy.  These are simple models (often illustrated as pyramids or inverted pyramids) which help designers, planners, policy makers and the rest of us make sensible decisions about managing energy, water, and waste.  They do so by helping us focus on the most effective solutions first, from both a technical and cost perspective.

In the case of waste, for example, the hierarchy prioritises reducing waste (i.e. avoiding it to begin with), reusing it if we cannot avoid creating it, and then finally recycling it if we cannot reuse it any more.

While recycling might be the first thing that comes to one’s mind on the topic of waste, the hierarchy reminds us that there are a number of topics to address first before we even begin to think of recycling. Energy and water hierarchies are similar: they focus first on reducing (or eliminating) demand, and only once demand is optimised do they consider supply options, conventional or otherwise.

It’s about time we start thinking about Transport in the same way.

While it does not have a wikipedia entry like the other sustainability hierarchies do (superficial yet telling evidence of its novelty), the transport hierarchy does in fact exist as a concept. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers does a good job of describing it in their policy paper published in 2013.

Similar to the other hierarchies, a sustainable transport hierarchy focuses first on reducing (or eliminating) demand, and then on shifting the demand to more sustainable options.  Only then does it address optimising system efficiency and increasing capacity.

Source: Transport Hierarchy, Institute of Mechanical Engineers:

Why is a Transport Hierarchy helpful?

Transport is a topic which is always present is sustainable planning and development discussions, due to its significant impacts, but only in a limited way.

For example, sustainability rating systems generally focus on a few aspects mostly related to enabling modal shift to walking, cycling or public transport [priority 2].  Increasing the number of public transport stops, providing bike racks, and allowing for comfortable pedestrian paths initiatives which are generally promoted by rating schemes.

There are typically sustainability credits which address providing amenities (e.g. grocery, ATMs, clinics,…etc.) in the vicinity of residential or commercial buildings.  However, these tend to be either very easy or very difficult wins as often the land-use decisions have already been made.

From the other perspective, transport planners and engineers generally have limited involvement on sustainability discussions.  Even worse, many of them have been appointed to make sure the roads are big enough to take all the cars, period.

My experience of masterplanning in the Middle East is that transport discussions generally start (not end) at increasing capacity [priority 4].  In some instances, optimising system efficiency [priority 3] is partly considered.  Minimising transport demand and enabling modal shift [priorities 1 and 2] are usually entirely overlooked.

Even when developments are intended to be places for ‘live, work, and play’, this philosophy often does not get fully implemented and does not make its way into traffic models.

The result: ‘sustainable’ car-dependent developments with bicycle racks and electric chargers, and cities with ever-expanding highways.

Is it that simple?

Of course not…

Sustainable transport is about a lot more than just carbon or even air emissions (which could potentially be covered under optimising system efficiency).  There are other environmental aspects to be considered such as noise and visual impact.

More importantly, there are salient social and economic factors involved such as accessibility, social inclusion, employment creation, maintenance costs and land valuation.

This is probably why sustainable transport has managed to escape the hierarchy model.  It is also probably why sustainability professionals have generally stayed away from delving into holistic transport planning and instead touched on specific transport aspects – increasing the number of bus stops or promoting low-carbon fuels.

Nevertheless, a sustainable transport hierarchy can add a great deal of clarity to planning and design discussions, along with the other sustainability hierarchies, even if only as a starting point.