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The UK and the future of planet friendly cities

An expert meeting about nature positive, net zero cities was organised yesterday by the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Roger Highfield, Phil Stevenson, and Tim Littlewood reflect on the day.

The UK, as the birthplace of the industrial revolution, has a ‘moral duty’ to take the lead in efforts to curb climate change and ecosystem destruction, according to Lord Deben, who recently stood down as the Chair of the Committee on Climate Change. 

But he said that it was difficult to see how the UK could influence other countries to cut their carbon emissions when the Government has announced it is seeking more oil in the North Sea. ‘We either do it together, or we will be destroyed together.’  

Lord Deben, who encouraged all present to make climate change an election issue, was speaking in the Science Museum yesterday, at a meeting organised jointly with the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to examine how cities are crucibles of hope when it comes to curbing both climate change and ecosystem destruction. 

From left to right: The Rt Hon The Lord Deben, member of the House of Lords; Dr Douglas Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum; The Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP; Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Science Museum Group; Sir Ian Blatchford, Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group; Richard Deverell, Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Dr Julia Knights, Deputy Director of the Science Museum Group; and Roger Highfield, Science Director of the Science Museum Group. Photo by Eleanor Bentall.

Climate change ‘is the symptom of what we have done to the world,’ he told a gathering of around 50 influential leaders in biodiversity and climate change, nicknamed ‘COP27.5’, which discussed how to place cities at the heart of the parallel UN COP (Conference of the Parties) processes on climate change and biodiversity. 

The two COPs should never be divided because they are ‘closely united,’ said Lord Deben, adding that our Earth is ‘crying out for healing,’ from the rise in pollution to the collapse of ecosystems, and we ‘are close to our own extinction.’ 

Key outcomes from the UN COP27 in Egypt and next steps to meet the Paris Agreement to limit global heating to 1.5 deg C above preindustrial temperatures were outlined by Sir Alok Sharma MP, who served as President for COP26 in Glasgow, what he called ‘the first business COP’, and had called for accelerated action to curb climate change at the previous ‘COP26.5.’ Yesterday, once again, he called for the actions of world leaders to match their climate change rhetoric. 

COP27 was ‘not an unqualified success’, added Sir Alok, a Fellow of the Science Museum: ‘Many of us who were negotiators had to fight tooth and nail to just hang on to what we achieved in Glasgow.’ 

In what is likely to be the hottest year on record, with the global climate on the wrong trajectory, Sir Alok highlighted four areas where progress needs to be made at COP28 in Dubai next month: clarity on when carbon emissions will peak; the global stocktake to see how well the world is delivering its climate change goals; a tripling of renewables by 2030; and agreeing the language on the phase down or phase out of fossil fuels.  

Sir Alok said: ’75 per cent of all emissions in the world are energy related and if we are not prepared to deal with this one issue, then I am afraid the chance of keeping 1.5 deg C alive start to ebb away.’  

The importance of the cities of the future was emphasised by Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Tanzanian Biodiversity leader and lawyer, Deputy Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and winner of the Kew International Medal 

She reminded everyone present that more than half of the planet’s human population are interested ‘in more biodiverse, low carbon and climate resilient cities.’ For example, ‘more trees mean more shade and less water loss.’ 

The discussions of the expert meeting were summed up by Prof Stephen Belcher, Science Museum Group Trustee and Chief Scientist at the Meteorological Office: cities are a ‘sweet spot’ for efforts to unite thinking about biodiversity and climate change; a way must be found to make biodiversity targets as simple to articulate as the Paris agreement 1.5 deg C target (he added that a proposed special IPCC report on cities needs to take account of biodiversity); and he welcomed new ways to frame these discussions, for instance by focusing on the health benefits of biodiversity.  

Prof Belcher added that it had been difficult to maintain a clear voice about scientific evidence during the two years of global emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and that it would be even harder to maintain a global focus over the next three decades when it comes to curbing climate change and ecosystem destruction. This was the ‘most daunting’ challenge of all. 

Chaired by the veteran ex BBC science editor David Shukman, yesterday’s meeting was opened by Sir Ian Blatchford, Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group, Science Museum Deputy Director Dr Julia Knights, along with Dr Doug Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum, and the first session was launched by Richard Deverell, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, RBG, Kew.

The first panel discussion focused upon the sixth mass extinction and how we can improve biodiversity and health impacts in cities, and was opened by Richard Deverell’s summary of the state of biodiversity in the UK and globally in cities, compared with the countryside. Kew research has revealed that almost half of the world’s flowering plants face extinction 

Evidence that access to nature is positive for health and wellbeing was outlined by Baroness Kathy Willis, Professor of Biodiversity of Oxford University and member of HMG’s Natural Capital Committee; harnessing community power – and ensuring that low income and marginalised groups can access nature – was discussed by Youth Leader, Victoria Beyai of NHM’s Urban Nature Project Youth Advisory Panel; and a remarkable case study of how to integrate nature into an urban landscape, which began in Singapore six decades ago, was outlined by Prof Puay Yok Tan, Director, Singapore Botanic Gardens, Chief Science and Technology Officer, National Parks Board. 

From left to right: David Shukman, Richard Deverell, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, RBG, Kew, Baroness Kathy Willis, Professor of Biodiversity of Oxford University, and Urban Nature Project Youth Leader, Victoria Beyai. Photo by Eleanor Bentall.

A glimpse of the future of nature positive cities came from the second session, which featured Dr Abi Bunker, Director of Conservation & External Affairs of The Woodland Trust, who examined the role of urban trees and the Trust’s tree equity project.

Next Alison Robinson, Deputy Chair of the Natural Environment Research Council outlined the GALLANT project, which is using Glasgow as a living lab to trial new sustainable solutions and Prof Phil Stevenson, Head of Trait Diversity and Function, RBG, Kew, talked about greening cities, which was also discussed by Jason Williams of The Cloud Garden, a reference to his 18th floor balcony garden in Manchester.   

The final session on smarter cities included an overview of the opportunities and challenges that rapid urbanisation brings in West Africa, highlighted by the Ghanaian architect Ruth-Anne Richardson of the Africa Futures Institute.

The use of big data in cities was explored by Carlo Ratti, Director of The Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT and Dima Zogheib, Associate Director of Arup Consulting, discussed evidence based decision-making in the design of climate responsive cities, while how to create connected cities, by honing policies based on ‘digital twins’ – virtual cities – and smart data, was outlined by Prof Mark Birkin of the University of Leeds, and The Alan Turing Institute. 

Speaking by video, the designer and architect, Thomas Heatherwick of Heatherwick Studio discussed the link between the climate crisis and the ‘epidemic of characterlessness’ in our cities.  

Heatherwick declared that the ‘dull, flat, shiny, plain, inhuman’ urban architecture of today meant the average life of a commercial building in the UK was just 40 years, while in China the amount of building waste is expected to rise to four billion tonnes by 2026, calling for more efforts to be made to repair, adjust and extend buildings, and respect how the public feel about buildings.  

The construction industry is responsible for 11 per cent of greenhouse emissions ‘and nobody is talking about it,’ said Heatherwick, adding that he has launched a campaign, found at, to stimulate a conversation about how to make cities kinder to people, and the environment too. 

Roger Highfield is the Science Director at the Science Museum, Tim Littlewood is the Executive Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, and Phil Stevenson is the Head of Trait Diversity and Function, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.