How public servants can engage unlikely allies to deliver climate policies

This article is written by Juan Azcarate, Deputy director of Energy and Climate Change in Madrid City Council.


Public servants who work on climate change policies in cities have a tough job. Despite the fact that we are already suffering climate effects such as extreme weather events and the urban heat island effect, the issue can be so hard to pin down, with impacts that feel like they are too far in the future to fit in the daily municipal tasks and messages.

In Madrid, we are tackling this challenge by linking climate actions with other urban environmental and health priorities, for example through our air quality and climate change plan, or by framing urban nature as an asset for climate adaptation. This helps us to bring global warming issues closer to citizens and makes it more tangible.

But it is also clear that more work is needed. Traditional approaches for delivering public policies and decision-making processes have been insufficient to trigger the transformation we know we need, due mainly to the lack of understanding of the social dimension of climate change. We often forget that it is not just about finding technological solutions but changing the social norms and behaviour on how we interact with energy and resources. Technology will not stop climate change. People will.

How can we effectively cut emissions at the local level when there are so many variables to take into account, and so many items on the to-do list?

We know what we need to do

Our despairing paradox is that we already know how to dramatically reduce our emissions.

These include electrification, circular economy, renewables and energy efficiency, just to name a few. But the challenge of implementing the policies that will enable these shifts is huge because they also disrupt business as usual models and the way we interact with the environment. In the past, Madrid has launched different plans and strategies to tackle climate issues but these classical city master plans usually follow rigid formats based on available expert technical knowledge.

New perspectives from unusual partners in the climate debate, like culture, economy or digitalisation, could then give us the key for a wider and enriched vision to better reach citizens. In Madrid we have recruited unlikely allies to put climate change on the agenda

As such, they are unable to embrace uncertainty and integrate innovative approaches in a systematised way. They have also the risk of becoming just glossy reports that are forgotten when a political change occurs.

It is clear that rather than sticking to those classical approaches or focusing on searching for an innovative and high-tech “silver bullet” we should identify the gaps in our way of delivering policies. And what if the most valuable resources for this are just in the next door to us?

Finding your allies

If we have to reinvent and go through a deep transformation of our current economic systems and behavioural patterns, it is clear that we urgently need a new way of storytelling for the climate crisis — one that integrates listening tools to identify perceptions, barriers and enablers of change aligned with the identity of Madrid; we have to admit that it’s hard for most people to grasp benchmarks like keeping the world below 1.5 degrees warming or 350 ppm CO2.

New perspectives from unusual partners in the climate debate, like culture, economy or digitalisation, could then give us the key for a wider and enriched vision to better reach citizens. In Madrid, we have recruited unlikely allies to put climate change on the agenda.

Our first unlikely ally was the Madrid Centre for Contemporary Creation (Matadero),  an urban arts centre. As a result of the collaboration, a new Matadero work programme was launched in 2019: the Mutant Institute of Environmental Narratives, a suggestive name for a municipal initiative founded with the purpose of evaluating the role of imaginaries, myths and perceptions that articulate our society in order to propose new climate change storytelling beyond the traditional messages.

The second weakness we identified in our approach to climate change is financing. We have to incorporate cost-benefit analysis, innovative financing models for low carbon transitions, green impact funds to get a clear view of the investments and costs associated and, even more important, to understand and create awareness of the cost of inaction to face climate risks.

With these new allies coming aboard, Madrid has formally set up a municipal “Climate group” of high rank officers from diverse city government fields, including “unusual” partners, such as culture, employment, innovation, citizen participation, data/ICT, treasury and budget departments

Quantifying and putting a monetary value on the economic impact of a range of climate threats will help policy analysis and decision making. Thus, our colleagues from finance, employment and budget departments have joined the discussion about how to best achieve cost-effective mitigation and adaptation measures and to elaborate the economic case for decarbonisation in Madrid.

Finally, a digital layer to gather urban data and interpreting sustainability trends in real time is required. Despite the inherent complexity, urban GHGs emissions data could be fine-tuned to better reflect the impact of urban experiments in terms of decarbonisation and climatic resilience or the behaviour of specific neighbourhoods. The open data and digitalisation of city services are key players in integrating this climate perspective in data management.

Laying new foundations to deliver climate policies together

With these new allies coming aboard, Madrid has formally set up a municipal “Climate group” of high rank officers from diverse city government fields, including “unusual” partners, such as culture, employment, innovation, citizen participation, data/ICT, treasury and budget departments.  The environment and urban planning departments have taken the lead, but once the need of transformative actions are described and an atmosphere of mutual trust is achieved, the synergies, innovative approaches and fruitful collaboration appears, creating a sense of shared ownership.

In addition to identifying and gathering internal allies, we have also engaged in a collaboration with a prestigious local academic partner, the Madrid Polytechnic University (UPM), which supports the city in the transformation process. The UPM not only provides capacity building and technical expertise, but also the required balance, neutrality and continuity that sometimes is difficult to maintain alone as city government.

Finally, it is important to use an international framework for the process — in our case it is the programme of Deep Demonstration from the European Institute of Technology and Innovation EIT-Climate KIC. The international perspective provides three direct benefits: it makes it easier to get political endorsement to the process, because international initiatives are usually well accepted and seen as politically non-biased, it allows the sense of network and community with other cities and, last but not least, it could be a potential financing source for the process.

In Madrid, those three elements: the “Climate Group”, the UPM University support and the Deep Demo framework, constitute the three strategic pillars that guide our work on climate policies and provide a new vision of levers of change and the enabling processes to deliver specific actions.

We are not sure if this will be the best strategy and we keep on learning by doing, but what we know is that we have the right mission allies and the journey is rewarding and sensemaking. — Juan Azcarate.

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