Shifting towards low-carbon cities

 Shifting towards low-carbon cities
PHOTO: Gordana Dragicevic/Green Network of Activist Groups (ZMAG)

Planting urban gardens, using straw and mud as building materials, riding bicycles – these were among the proposals featured during a panel discussion in Zagreb aimed at identifying ways in which individuals can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create low-carbon cities


  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires fundamental social and economic changes over a long period of time.

The burning of fossil fuels has led to greater concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere than ever before, recently exceeding 400 parts per million. Such levels of concentration have already resulted in a temperature increase of 0.8°C since 1900, and are projected to bring about a further increase of between 3.7°C and 4.8°C by the end of the century.

The effects of high concentrations of carbon are not limited to higher temperatures but involve a wide range of impacts on the environment, including more frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves, intense rainfalls and flooding, as well as warm winters with no snow. Europe and America have both experienced these effects in the last few months, most recently in the form of unprecedented flooding in the basin of the River Sava in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia.

Scientists and policy-makers agree that the only way to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to a ‘safe’ level of 350 parts per million would be to bring about an immediate global shift from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy, to introduce measures for much greater energy efficiency and to ensure the introduction of sustainable practices in all sectors of the economy—especially in agriculture, transport and industry.  

However, there is no agreement so far as to who should effectuate this reduction in carbon emissions—nor how great these reductions should be, within which timeframes, and who should pay for the costs of such reductions. Global climate negotiations thus continue to debate these issues while time is running out.

Many policy-makers are proposing low-emission development strategies, green development packages and 2050 roadmaps towards low-carbon economies. Many agree that by 2050 carbon emissions should be cut by as much as 80-95%. The aim is to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels while still sustaining economic development and ensuring acceptable living conditions.

How will life in cities be affected by climate change and what we can do as individuals to mitigate and adapt to these changes? These questions formed the central topic of a panel discussion held in Zagreb involving a variety of experts—including sociologists, urban planners and energy experts—organized as part of Zagreb Energy Week on 12-17 May 2014.  The aim of the discussion was to highlight different initiatives and ways in which individuals can contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions and help achieve low-carbon cities.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires fundamental social and economic changes over a long period of time. Local farming, alternative forms of transport, building with natural materials and  better use of public spaces are just some of the ways in which we can contribute to the reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions.

The transition to a low-carbon development is not an option but an inevitable sequence of events and the speed of this transition is of great importance for protection from the effects of climate change,” said Zoran Skala, senior advisor from the Institute for Physical Planning.

Gordana Dragicevic from the Green Network of Activist Groups (ZMAG) spoke about urban gardens, which are becoming popular in response to the economic crisis and climate change. “In addition to providing food and contributing to the conservation of biodiversity, urban gardens promote local sustainability, civic solidarity and unity,“ said Dragicevic.

Daniel Rodik, from the Society for Sustainable Development Design (DOOR) talked about the opportunities and benefits of using natural materials such as straw and mud in the building sector, as practiced on the Vukomeric Recycling Farm. “In addition to being excellent thermal insulators and contributing to sustainable energy management, such materials also reduce the negative impact that plastic materials can have on human health,” said Rodik.

Edo Jerkić from the  Green Energy Cooperative showed how to overcome the resistance of the local community towards renewable energy projects by setting up energy cooperatives, as seen at the Midellegrunden wind-power plant owned by the citizens of Copenhagen.

Davorin Belamarić from the Cyclists' Union stressed the environmental and health benefits of using bicycles in cities, especially in terms of reducing air pollution.

The participants agreed that a successful transition to low-carbon development will not be possible without a shift to local production, significant investment in renewable energy and community solidarity.

Guidelines and an 
roadmap for post-carbon cities are being developed within a European-wide project called Pocacito (Post Carbon Cities of Tomorrow). As one of the partners in the project, the UNDP office in Croatia is leading the preparations of a low-carbon development plan for the City of Zagreb. The project started this year and will continue for the next 3 years.

Early signs of transition towards developing Zagreb into a low-carbon city are encouraging. However, the actions of individuals and civil organizations will need to be matched by firm commitments from local and national governments to overcome the impacts of climate change.