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Accelerating urban action for a carbon-free world

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By: M Ahmad

The United Nations designated the first Monday of October of every year as World Habitat Day to reflect on the state of our habitats, and on the basic right of all to adequate shelter. The Day is also intended to remind the world that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns. World Habitat Day was first celebrated in 1986.

This day is celebrated in many countries across the world to address the problems of rapid urbanisation and its impact on the environment and human poverty. The day also intends to remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat.

The global urban population has spiraled upwards since the mid-twentieth century. Between 1950 and today, the population of cities around the world has more than quadrupled with over 4.2 billion people now living in urban environments according to the World Bank. Over the same time, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a key indicator of global warming, has risen by over a third almost entirely due to human activity. Today, cities account for about 75 per cent of the world’s energy consumption and are responsible for over 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The way cities are planned, built and managed, is key to reducing carbon emissions and keeping global warming within the limits set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

This is especially important as cities and towns are projected to add a further 2.5 billion people in the next 30 years according to UNDESA, raising the proportion of people in urban areas from 55 percent today, to nearly 70 percent in 2050. Urbanization is taking place most rapidly in the less developed regions of the world (figure 2). Currently, three times as many urban dwellers live in the less developed regions than in the more developed regions, and 90 per cent of new urban residents will live in Africa and Asia. Most cities in developing Africa and Asia are still to be built, and the World Economic Forum projects two-thirds of the investments in urban infrastructure in Africa needed by 2050 have yet to be made. There is a window of opportunity to shape these cities in a way that reduces overall energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The increasing population growth and migration to cities, in many cases caused by climate stress, create challenges in providing basic services to urban residents, particularly the poor. Ensuring that growing cities are compact, and that expansion takes place in a planned manner to accommodate the growing number of residents helps reduce their carbon footprint. Compact cities also make the provision of basic services such as waste management, transport, energy and water and sanitation more resource-efficient and financially viable. UN-Habitat therefore promotes a strategy that combines compact city planning together with good governance and equitable provision of basic services. Avoiding urban sprawl also reduces stress on ecosystems, promoting a balanced coexistence between human settlements and nature, and contributes to the prevention of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. According to the United Nations, cities consume more than two-thirds of the world’s energy, and account for more than 70% of global heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions.

Our cities are growing rapidly in terms of inhabitants and the space they occupy. Every minute, we add 10,000 square metres of city space. Every five days, we build a new Paris, each year, the total size of Japan. This urbanization requires us to rethink how our cities are engineered. Today, cities occupy 3% of the Earth’s land, but account for two thirds of the world’s energy demand and 70% of CO2 emissions. The large carbon footprint of cities also impacts air quality, raising growing concerns on the health and well-being of citizens. In fact, 91% of the world’s population currently lives in places where air quality levels exceed the World Health Organization’s limits.

In other words, the impact of cities is enormous. But so are the opportunities for urban efficiency. To deliver on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, we need to be city-centric. Cities have a unique opportunity to reduce emissions and air pollution by using synergies between the different sectors of the urban energy system. They act as ambitious and inspirational frontrunners that showcase new, efficient technologies and create attractive and future-proof places to live and work.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate recommends that cities commit to developing and implementing low-carbon urban development strategies by using where possible the framework of prioritizing policies and investments in public, non-motorized and low-emission transport, building efficiency, renewable energy and efficient waste management. Better Growth, Better Climate demonstrates strong synergies between economic development and climate action in cities. Ambitious low-carbon policies can stimulate urban productivity and innovation, and address major policy challenges such as congestion or accessibility. Most of these opportunities need to be realized by local governments, but there is an important role for regional/provincial and national governments to create enabling policy frameworks that empower cities to invest and innovate in carbon free projects. Global cooperation is also crucial to disseminate best practice and ensure rapid collective learning.

In India Himachal Pradesh, which has mandated all government departments to begin environment audit, is on its way to becoming the country’s first and the world’s third carbon-free state after Masdar City in United Arab Emirates and  Dongtan in China.

“With our attention focused on responding and recovering from the COVID-19 crises, let us ensure that every action we take today, every investment and support we mobilise, stimulates more sustainable, low-carbon and resilient development pathways that leave no one and no place behind”-UN-Habitat Executive Director, Maimunah Mohd Sharif

The writer is Incharge Abhedananda Home-Higher Secondary Institution for Specially-abled Children, Solina, Rambagh, Srinagar, J&K.  email: [email protected])


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