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During his presidency, Ronald Reagan mused repeatedly over how easily the world would come together if faced with an invasion of monsters from outer space. A quarter of a century later, Reagan’s monster is perhaps finally coming into view — not in the form of an extraterrestrial aggressor, but as an awesome cloud of our own emissions. Climate change is out there, breathing global doom, and sure enough it is urging nations to rally round and act as one. We gather, we talk, we convene world experts. We place our faith in the Kyoto Protocol; and now, as architects and urbanists, in Kyoto of the Cities — an idea launched at a conference held in Naples at the end of March.

The notion of a binding universal threat was inculcated in the opening address by Sir Crispin Tickell, a leading environmentalist who outlined ecological armageddon before concluding that we are all microbes upon the surface of an apple. Well and good, but an awful blow was then dealt to Reagan’s theory of monster-inspired unity. What emerged from the following series of presentations was less the sense of a coherent organised response, and much more that of miscellaneous acts of scrambling, dreaming, and catalepsy.

Particularly difficult to synthesise was the very broad if passionate gloom of Tickell and other government-side actors, and the minutiae of practitioners operating within their individual fields. Franco Becchis memorably delved deep into the pricing arcana of CHP to surmise that it was a “black box”. Fabio Grazi on the other hand used a black box of his own to demonstrate a 0.05% gain in GDP against the BAU scenario by 2067 if we densify the city by 40% today. In amongst the streams of graphs and predictions (are economists even still allowed to extend time axes out to 2100?) lurked an unmistakable dataphilia — much of it primarily it seemed for the simple joy of creating complex-cloud graphics. How any of this might link together was almost too dangerous to ask.

On one side of a difficult chasm were ideas, mostly coming out of academic institutions and think tanks. On the other were the stories of those working in implementation, where failures abounded not because of any technical shortcomings, but just because it’s appallingly hard to make things change.

The saddest real world knock to green innovation was indubitably that of Dongtan, the Arup-designed development on Shanghai’s Chongming Island, which until recently was billed to be the world’s first zero carbon city. Notably the trouble stems not from science but from politics. Dongtan is a global flagship project, and as such could never have gone forward without the close support of former Shanghai Chief Chen Liangyu. However Chen’s recent conviction on corruption charges casts dark shadows all around him. This is only made worse by the fact that in China, where corruption is not only endemic but often indistinguishable from political process, corruption charges are overwhelmingly politically motivated. Dongtan is currently “on hold”. Whether or not it proves to be an accidental casualty of power struggles among bosses of the Chinese Communist Party remains to be seen. A cynic would opine that with the road link now up connecting Chongming Island to Shanghai proper, rapid development will go ahead, but won’t think twice about carbon.

The fear that the world will sail, business-as-usual, and in spite of all the rhetoric, direct into the foot of the climate change monster, is one which permeated the conference. Tickell — himself a senior adviser to successive UK Prime Ministers — spoke of “the relative failure of governments”, while at the same time crying, “let’s not kid ourselves this can be left to the whims of the market.” Investor lock-in was identified as a significant impediment to change, whereby the vast volumes of capital required to build our current energy, waste and transport infrastructure rather demand that we continue using it. 20+ year market commitments, combined with the systemic short-termism of democratic governments (restricted essentially to 4 year thinking), yield a rather intractable situation. Suggestions like a global repricing of fossil fuels to include “climate change externalities”, or a global carbon auction, are conceivable, but it is hard to see them being enforceable without the monster coming a little closer first. What was really needed to achieve unity of purpose, some said, was a “benign” catastrophe.

While waiting for it, is there anything else to do? To some extent, while we delight in talking climate change, but continue in our love for the motor car, for the five pound flight, for power on tap, for low rise residential, for buying and discarding cheap things, for all foods in all seasons, for having children, and indeed, for many of the trappings of freedom and prosperity as we currently experience them, there are problems. The frequent befuddling of facts with ideologies is no small barrier. Bill Watts coolly noted that the biggest step toward improving a building’s environmental performance is most often plain good management. It is one thing to contemplate technologies for tomorrow, but there is a commitment gap if we cannot even read meters and turn off lights today.

Kyoto of the Cities was held in the Castel dell’Ovo — a stunning 12th century edifice overlooking the bay of Naples. In between monster sessions we’d stroll out onto the terrace and watch sailboats crossing through the white sunlight. Over to the right was the city’s Renaissance skyline; to the left, cloud drifting off the rugged Mount Vesuvius. Somehow it was all just too beautiful to feel anything was really wrong. Another couple of presentations, you’d say, and then seafood tagliatelle. The monster, well, the monster would be there tomorrow ...