Scaling-up investments in sustainable cities through investing in sustainable infrastructure and resource efficient technologies, offers a golden opportunity to deliver economic growth with lower rates of environmental degradation, reductions in poverty, cuts in greenhouse gases, and improved well-being. This is according to a new report released by the United Nations titled ‘City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and the Governance of Infrastructure Transitions‘.
Cities, which are home to the majority of the world’s population, consume the majority of the world’s natural resources. Cities are expected to grow and by 2050 and it’s expected that 70 percent of the global population will reside in cities. Much of this growth is expected in cities of Africa and Asia.
According to the report, achieving inclusive sustainable development for all requires ‘decoupling’ city-based economic growth rates from the unsustainable consumption of finite natural resources, which has characterized most urban development to date.
As the price of depleting natural resources continues to rise, promoting sustainable urban infrastructures can benefit the environment and shield cities from potential economic and social instability in an increasingly resource-constrained 21st century.
Several cities in Africa have begun scaling-up their investments in sustainable infrastucture and resource efficient technologies. The city of Lagos in Nigeria introduced a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to address chronic congestion and pollution problems in the city which has contributed to a 13 percent drop in carbon emissions from urban transport. Around a quarter of commuters on the route use the service and journey times have been cut by up to 50 per cent. In Cape Town, South Africa, a re-fit of low income housing with solar water heaters and efficient lighting has saved over 6,500 tons of carbon per year, cut respiratory illnesses by 75 per cent, created green jobs and reduced the cost of hot water for poor households. In Durban, South Africa, the Mariannhill landfill site collects and treats otherwise toxic liquid waste from the site before re-using it for irrigation. The landfill converts methane emitted from waste into US$20,000 worth of electricity per month. An on-site tree nursery supports indigenous plants and averts potential biodiversity loss caused by the landfill.
Thirty such case studies are featured in the report, City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and the Governance of Infrastructure Transitions, produced by the International Resource Panel (IRP), which is hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Other efforts involve reducing oil consumption by moving more people and goods onto public transport powered by electricity, or re-establishing peri-urban farms to supply locally grown food.
“To date, the trend towards urbanization has been accompanied by increased pressure on the environment and growing numbers of urban poor,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner at the launch of the report in Nairobi.
“But unique opportunities exist for cities to lead the greening of the global economy by increasing resource productivity and innovation, while achieving major financial savings and addressing environmental challenges. Although many cities are seizing such opportunities, a holistic vision for the urban centres of the future is still lacking.”
Greener Infrastructure & Sustainable Cities
The study says much greater effort is needed to support new and improved infrastructure for water, energy, transport, waste and other sectors – generally located in and around cities – to wean the world off unsustainable consumption patterns, and avoid serious economic and environmental implications for future generations.
Some 60 percent of the built environment required to meet the needs of the world’s growing urban population still needs to be constructed. The cost of meeting the urban infrastructure requirements of the world’s cities between 2000 and 2030 is estimated at US$40 trillion – both through the building of new infrastructure (mainly in developing countries) or retrofitting existing facilities (mainly in developed nations). The report identifies a major opportunity: channelling these funds into sustainable infrastructure that reduces carbon emissions, improves resource productivity, and avoids the resource-intensive urban planning of the past.
“Older cities may have to retrofit and replace inefficient infrastructure into which they have been locked for decades to achieve decoupling, but newer and expanding cities have the advantage of flexibility. They can ‘get it right’ the first time,” said Joan Clos, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).
The report also highlight that maintaining healthy ecosystems, and factoring their economic value into urban development plans, will be key to achieving city-level decoupling.