Living infrastructure, both natural and planned, could help stave off the effects of climate change, writes Cora Moran
As shown in the latest IPCC report, the threat of abrupt climate change is a real and pressing danger: even if we are successful in limiting emissions to 1.5C, we will still have to deal with certain adverse effects such as more frequent extreme weather events.
Much effort is put towards mitigating the effects of climate change by encouraging low carbon power generation and improving energy efficiency to reduce carbon emissions; there is also a great deal of work being done to adapt and make our infrastructure as resilient as possible.
With a rapidly urbanising and increasing global population, the main focus is on the world’s cities: preparations to ensure better coastal defences to mitigate against rising sea levels and storm surges from extreme weather events, alongside ensuring buildings are effectively air conditioned.
While such actions are, of course, essential, one often-overlooked aspect is ‘green infrastructure’. This refers to ecological systems – both naturally occurring and planned – that act as living infrastructure. This can, for example, take the form of planting mangroves or salt marshes to help buffer against rising sea levels and storm surges.
Additionally, this includes ensuring the highest feasible level of green space within a city and the widespread planting of trees. Vegetation can serve to absorb pollutants, provide a cooling effect in heatwaves and absorb large amounts of rainfall, minimising surface runoff and the risk of flooding.
Local food production
Local food production is also often considered a part of ‘green Infrastructure’, though generally as a producer of fruits and vegetables as a supplementary activity to daily city life. While this impression is understandable, the actual picture is much bigger than this: the majority of the world’s population is currently fed in terms of calories, on a few varieties of three grain crops, wheat, rice and maize and it could be potentially catastrophic. Urban local food production is even more vital than you think.
The majority of grains are produced in a few countries and exported to international markets around the world. As demand continues to rise and extreme weather events become more commonplace, the risk of shortages increases annually with potentially severe humanitarian consequences.
The majority of global calories are provided by a small number of crops, partly due to their ability to be produced on a very large scale with minimal labour and stored for long periods, making them a highly profitable commodity.
It need not be this way, of course; human beings have domesticated a wide range of plants around the world, many of which can also provide for people’s caloric needs just as effectively as the current staple grain crops. Root vegetables such as potatoes and other South American tubers, as well as various species of yam and related plants, all offer great promise as potential replacements.
Root vegetables are also more resilient to erratic weather, require fewer fertiliser inputs and can provide high yields: even when grown on a very small scale in marginal soil or aquaponically, making them ideal for growing in urban areas. Though they often store less well, local production and worldwide distribution of a range of species mean they are more amenable to people being able to access locally produced food, which they would have traditionally grown.
Urban agriculture, with an emphasis on producing staple calories as part of our infrastructure to combat climate change, can help promote an essential strategy to ensure food security for an urbanising world in the face of an increasingly volatile climate.
Cora Moran is an experienced researcher who has worked in the Built Environment & Renewable Energy sectors for a number of years and writes for the European Energy Centre about a range of environmental issues.