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Multisolving for Climate Change


Q. Would I be right in thinking that the planning approach you take with the multisolving project is a ‘broad scope’ plan, addressing multiple community issues as opposed to a ‘narrow-scope’ plan that focuses on reducing risks from natural hazards?

Yes, multisolving is absolutely a broad scope way of doing things. We would call it a “systems” approach, since we’re promoting solutions that address the interconnected, systemic problems facing the climate and society. That’s not to say the solutions can’t be at a small scale – in fact, some of the most exciting multisolving initiatives happen at the city or even neighborhood level.

Regarding natural hazards, we would describe multisolving solutions as treating both the symptoms (e.g. reducing flood risk during storms) and the disease (climate change), as opposed to a typical approach that would only treat the symptoms.

For example, there are parks in Copenhagen which are designed to turn into retention ponds when it rains heavily. The greenery in the parks sequesters carbon dioxide, thus reducing climate change and when heavy rains occur, these parks help prevent floods by storing water as retention ponds. The city found that the parks cost half of what it would take to lay out a new pipe system and they had the additional benefits of beautifying the area, giving locals a place for recreation and mitigating pollution all in one.

Multisolving plans generally cost less than traditional disaster risk reduction policies while offering additional benefits and we think multisolving policies have a lot to offer city planners and other governmental officials. With a single investment, let’s say in energy efficiency or in bike lanes, governments can improve public health, save residents money, improve equity and further their climate goals. The broad array of benefits means that these policies tend to generate more savings than costs.

The other advantage of multisolving over a narrower scope of decision-making is that it can help win over different constituencies. How do you get the health sector to support climate action? By proposing climate solutions that also help improve public health and patient outcomes.

Q. There are a lot of different components to the multisolving program. Can you tell us about the governance involved? How do you measure progress and which projects have proven to be the most successful?

What we’ve found with our health and climate research is that there is no one way to lead a multisolving project. Typically, the decision-making process involves multiple organizations and stakeholders, which makes sense considering the broad scope and sectors involved in multisolving, but different projects organize their governance structures differently.

For instance, one organization may be in charge of implementation but makes decisions in consultation with various partners and advisors. Or multiple departments join up to form a leading committee or task force. Or a government body will provide the funding, with multiple organizations doing the on-the-ground work. Often these projects have evolved from the leadership of just one motivated individual or group and expanded along the way to fit their needs. So, I think the takeaway on governance is: if you want to multisolve, be flexible, and don’t worry if you’re starting out small. Form the partnerships you need and let the structure evolve organically.

Measuring progress is so, so important to multisolving. You need evidence of the good you’re doing in order to attract funding, communicate with stakeholders and bring in more partnerships or expand your project. It’s also important to measure a range of indicators, not just in 1 or 2 sectors, in order to quantify all the benefits that may be accruing. If you think the initiative will create jobs as well as improve public health, start tracking job creation. You’ll generate more enthusiasm and support that way.

I can’t answer your question about the most successful multisolving projects because it depends on how you want to rank success – do you for instance, want to achieve the broadest range of benefits or the highest number of people reached or the deepest carbon reductions?

Another difficulty is that different projects use different indicators, so it’s not all apples to apples comparisons. I can tell you that out of the projects we documented in our health-climate research, the project with the highest benefits-to-costs ratio (out of those that measured that indicator) was a project in the UK encouraging children to walk to school. It produced $7.64 of benefits for every $1 invested.

My personal favorite project though was a group of anesthesiologists in Australia that switched the anesthetic gases they used to gases that have a lower climate impact. It’s just such an unexpected connection to make.

Q. The Health Climate Intersections (HCI) Project you’re working on sounds like an incredibly important piece of research. Once its published, what’s the game plan to get leaders on board and push the policies needed to improve health in cities?

In some ways, I think just having this research published and out in the world is a good start. This will be the first time that anyone has collected case studies of multisolving for both climate and health impacts.

While multisolving is not a new concept – it has its roots in the environmental justice movement – most people doing it don’t have a word for what they’re doing, or realise they are part of a larger movement. What we want these leaders to know is that there are others like them, taking similar approaches and facing similar challenges. That they are part of a community that can support and learn from one another and of course, we want people who aren’t yet multisolving to see what a great opportunity it is to save money and generate health benefits while mitigating climate change.

The plan is to share this research far and wide and attempt to build a community of practice for multisolvers around the world.

Q. Can we talk about the subnational climate action taking place in the U.S.? Whose job is it to track the actions of U.S. cities and states who have pledged to reduce C02 emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and who exactly holds them accountable?

There are currently several research and nonprofit organizations tracking U.S. subnational climate action, including us at Climate Interactive, but there’s no mandate or treaty to officially monitor progress and hold cities accountable. Some of the pledged actions are codified into law but many aren’t. That means it’s up to the public to keep the pressure on their public officials and make sure they’re aware that climate action is widely supported by their constituents.

What we have found in our tracking efforts is that 55% of the U.S. population lives in a city, county or state that has adopted the United States’ (former) Paris climate target, representing 40% of U.S. emissions. We estimate that if these cities, states, and counties are successful, they will take the U.S. 20-36% of the way toward meeting what would have been the United States’ overall Paris target. It’s better than no action, but still not enough to make up for the loss of U.S. action on the national level.

Q. Over 200 U.S. cities have initiated climate change planning in some fashion. Given the variability in how different U.S. localities perceive and react to climate change effects, is there any way, for the sake of consistency, that this planning could be undertaken at a state level?

Yes, many climate actions at the local level could be scaled up to the state level. In fact, one of the case studies in our climate-health research started as an air pollution abatement measure in Mexico City that gradually expanded to other Mexican cities and states and is now being implemented as a national program. We would love to see more multisolving and climate-protection measures being enacted at the state and of course national level. Fifteen U.S. states have pledged to follow Paris goals, which shows it is being implemented to some extent. There is however, great diversity among the different U.S. states and some have made more climate progress than others.

States have some advantages that cities do not when it comes to climate policy. City dwellers tend to have lower per-capita emissions than rural and suburban residents, so when the whole state enacts climate policy it also captures those rural and suburban emissions.

States also have a bigger budget and mandate for big-ticket multisolving policies such as railways. They also cover a bigger geographical area so they can better conserve wild lands and are able to implement climate policies such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.

Q. Cities are likely to have to redouble their efforts in the face of climate change, which will place additional stress on transportation, utility infrastructures, increase demands on public health services and so much more. Organisations such as yours are doing good work building a capacity for urban adaptation but are cities up to the challenge that lies ahead?

What we’re trying to do is show that the need to mitigate climate change is not just a challenge, but also a huge opportunity. Using multisolving as a lens for urban sustainability means that we can design the communities that we would want to live in even as we prevent and prepare for climate change. Multisolving means living in a more beautiful, healthful, connected, resilient and just world.

I’m not saying that it won’t take work to get there, but the good news is that that work will pay off in dividends.

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