Municipal governments are employing “climate change agents”. But they need the right support

Vienna's Rathaus ("city hall"), whose occupants are contributing to the debate on local mitigation of climate change. Image: Andrzej O/Wikimedia Commons.

It can be difficult to set up institutional structures and large scale support programmes for local actors to engage in climate action – yet dedicated and skilled individuals can make all the difference in local communities.

So who are the “agents of change” in local climate mitigation? And which factors promote or hinder climate action at the local level?

Addressing these questions and factors is a vital part of “Climate Dialogue”, a three-year project commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB). Climate Dialogue seeks to facilitate exchange and networking among countries, subnational entities and individuals who are interested in strengthening local climate action. The project is looking closely at specific instruments and policies, as well as designing, optimising and promoting support schemes for local climate mitigation.

At recent Climate Dialogue workshops, experts from Europe and North America discussed the different approaches taken in British Columbia, Vienna and Germany. The mechanisms used include supporting individuals who act as change agents within local governments, and who serve to drive local climate action forward.

British Columbia focuses its activities on reducing demand at the corporate and municipal level, by employing and subsidising specialized energy managers. Vienna approaches the issue at the highest administrative level through the Magistratsdirektion Klima, an organisation which acts as an interface between different departments and the mayors’ office to ensure streamlined activities across the entire administration.

In Germany, meanwhile, the BMUB provides financial support for municipalities employing local climate protection managers. Part of the Climate Dialogue project has involved developed a specialised training programme for these managers, carried out by the Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung (Institute for Energy & Environmental Research) Heidelberg.

While it is obvious that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for change agents, the issues these individuals face are often very similar – so an international exchange among decision makers and practitioners can provide meaningful and important lessons that help to advance national programs. The intense discussion between practitioners from the countries mentioned above brought to light differences in the details of different strategies; but it also helped to identify three common themes.

The first concerns the skill set required by local climate and energy managers. While technical knowledge plays a vital role in their position, the ability to communicate and promote strategies, as well as desired outcomes, is an often-neglected competence.

Not only does the general public need to be convinced of measures: it also needs to be convinced by relevant stakeholders and political decision makers. Here, the ability to effectively collaborate with various actors is the key to achieving successful outcomes.

Secondly, while local energy and climate managers often serve to support existing administrative structures, some of these structures actually seem to hinder their effectiveness. Climate mitigation needs to be integrated as a theme, right across political thinking and decision making.

Achieving that depends on a number of factors, including the implementation level, the size and capacities of municipalities, and issues of mandatory or voluntary action. But embedding such thinking into local structures helps change agents to gain support for their work, and to influence decisions across all sectors and departments.

As a third point, funding for change agents is of course crucial. The importance and awareness for climate mitigation should allow for a variety of funding sources, despite generally empty budgets.

Local funding – whether from municipal utilities, municipal budgets or corporations – Is the preferred option, since it makes communication with relevant stakeholders easier and therefore lowers transaction costs. But while private funds bring the risk of prioritising individual investors’ interests, local contexts will define the general availability and hence need for diverse funding sources.

With regards to communication, articulating the short-term profits and benefits often seems to further availability of funds. Generally, people need reliability and planning security to excel in their jobs; this is true for change agents, too. Short-term finance and the need to secure funding again at regular intervals can motivate people to do their best – but it is also a burden, particularly for young professionals, and particularly if they are in comparatively low-paid positions within local government.

The strategies employed vary across different countries and different levels of government.  But dialogue and exchange not only allows for lessons to be learnt; it also creates a space for inspiration and encouragement, through the discovery of common experiences. Knowledge sharing and networking at the local level can create a strong sense of empowerment.

Anna Bach is an analyst at Berlin-based think tank Adelphi, currently working on the Climate-Dialogue programme.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.