Resilient Cities Roundup: Global Trends
Interview with Maggie Comstock, a global policy wonk on green buildings and cities
Maggie Comstock is a Policy Analyst for the U.S. Green Building Council with focus on global green building policy, working closely with the World Green Building Council to help shape local and national policies. She works closely with the United Nations Environmental Program’s Sustainable Building and Climate Initiative and currently serves as one of the regional representatives for North America to UNEP.
Maggie spoke with SCC about global sustainable development trends and the emergence of resiliency planning for cities around the world, including urban policies that are getting the planet greener and safer, one building at a time.
What are the emerging topics for sustainable cities?
Resilience to climate change is becoming increasingly important in the aftermath of Sandy, recent droughts and wildfires in Australia, and other extreme weather events. New York’s PlaNYC includes a chapter on climate resilience and in January the city passed an Executive Order amending their zoning code in flood zones.
The USGBC has focused on resilience through advocacy and through a study on how LEED buildings create a more resilient environment. We were one of the founding partners of the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (now the Resilience Initiative on Global Urban Readiness) to create urban-focused solutions through collaborations between financial institutions, governments, NGO’s and the private sector. To enhance resilience planning, the USGBC hopes to provide both technical assistance and funding by collaborating with the foundation community.
My favorite ‘sustainable city’ policy is Tokyo’s building and industrial sector cap and trade program. Cap and trade programs and market mechanisms are popular everywhere right now. This policy is unique because is deals with demand side, not supply side carbon emissions.
Where many market mechanisms focus on Scope 1 emissions--like power production--the Tokyo system focuses on Scope 3 emissions--like energy use in buildings.
How are insurers and lenders linking risk to carbon emissions in cities?
The Fireman’s Fund, and insurance company, has special rates for green buildings based on their higher operating income, increased cash flow, and lower vacancy rates. The World Green Building Council released a report that summarizes the business case for green buildings, with a special section on risk.
Corporations themselves are putting a value on environmental impact. Puma calculates environmental risk through their Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L) report. They calculate the social and environmental costs of their operations and supply chain, winding up at $190 million USD in costs.
Here, they are considering making changes now to reduce their risk, anticipating of increased cost of business in the future.
Climate change adaptation and resilience are both relatively new in sustainable city planning. What is the difference between climate change adaptation and climate change resilience?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back after a disruption. Adaption is being prepared for future climate change effects. Resilience is having the social, economic, and physical infrastructure that allows a community to rebuild. People see resilience as a ‘now’ phenomenon. People think of adaptation as a future issue, which means many feel it can be put off. Resilience is a popular topic in the U.S., where in developing countries they are talking more about adaptation.
There are many similarities between the two. For example, informal settlements in Mumbai suffer from chronic flooding during the monsoon season which inevitably ends in loss of life. Adaptation and resilience strategies would focus on creating storm water infrastructure so they have basic city services (resilience) and are less vulnerable to natural disaster (adaptation).
SCC readers are focused on local solution, but come from many different backgrounds. Have any advice?
There’s a well-known theory in the energy efficiency space called the ‘helplessness of the individual’. As an individual, actions can feel like they don’t matter. “Will changing my light bulbs to CFLs really make a difference?” It does.
Starting from the macro scale, let’s say the United Nations files an agreement where every member country agrees to reduce carbon emissions by 20%. Then the responsibility falls on the countries to deliver. Then the states, then counties, then the cities. It really comes down to individuals who act on policies to make a difference. Every one of us is responsible for our actions. Even if you don’t bike every day, the one day a week you bike helps. Achieving global goals requires local action.
What is the role of green building at national conferences and among multilateral organizations?
It’s all about commitments. Inside these meetings, NGO’s and private sector companies will announce voluntary commitments, and that seems to be where a lot of talk turns to action. For example, Microsoft voluntarily committed to achieve net zero carbon emissions through renewables and offsets. The National Resources Defense Council created a registry to track such commitments and monitor their progress through the Cloud of Commitments, now called EarthPromises.
The conversation is removed from building technologies or specific implementation plans. It’s about climate change mitigation targets and how to finance mitigation and adaptation initiatives. There are a couple of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) for green buildings, but always focus on higher level targets and goals at the country level.
Thanks to Maggie for taking the time to share her experience and wisdom with SCC and our readers.
Sustainable Cities Collective