Bogota, Colombia from a distance. Photo: Shutterstock
Bogota, Colombia from a distance. Photo: Shutterstock

This autumn, the IPCC will publish its much-awaited special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees centigrade. For the first time, the world will have a clear scientific view of the rate and scale of emissions reduction is required if we are to avoid runaway climate change. It is expected to set out the systemic change needed to avoid the associated sea level rise, extreme weather, shocks to our food supplies and water, and setbacks in living standards if we fail to constrain atmospheric pollution.

Cities are one of the systems that need to be transformed.

Urban areas contribute up to three-quarters of the global greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change – but they also offer large opportunities to cut emissions. Moreover, many of the low-carbon measures that could be deployed in cities could generate significant benefits ranging from new jobs to cleaner air.

This is why it is so important that the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has now added sustainable cities to its Impact Program. GEF’s impact programs target key global systems which are key drivers to global environmental degradation and offer high potential to deliver environmental benefits.

It is already making strategic investments in innovative climate actions across 28 cities in 11 countries through its Global Platform on Sustainable Cities, with the aim of supporting “game changers” that could be adopted at scale. It is all set to engage with more cities in the GEF-7 period to scale up its ambition of achieving global environmental benefits under various Multilateral Environment Agreements including the UNFCCC, Convention on Biodiversity and UNCCD.

To underline this new commitment, the recent GEF Assembly in Vietnam brought together leaders from national, regional and local governments, multilateral institutions, research institutions and city networks to look at the latest evidence and best practice on sustainable cities. The high-level roundtable was convened by our own organisations: C40, ICLEI, and the WRI Ross Centre for Cities, along with the Coalition for Urban Transitions, a major new initiative supporting national governments to transform cities.

The event heard from Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director, UN Habitat; Bambang Brodjonegoro, Minister of National Development Planning of Indonesia; representatives from the national governments of India, Mexico, Rwanda, Switzerland and the city governments of La Paz, Bolivia and Porto Alegre, Brazil. Also participating were representatives from key financial institutions, including Suma Chakrabarti, President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and leaders from the World Bank Group and the Inter-American Development Bank.

All the evidence shows, there is no business-as-usual high-carbon, unregulated path to environmental safety or economic success. The roundtable participants discussed that, while towns and cities have often been the dynamic engines of national economic productivity, they are now disproportionately the engines of climate emissions and environmental degradation. They are increasingly choked by traffic, air pollution and undermined by extreme inequality and sprawl. Basic infrastructure and services are struggling to keep pace with historically unprecedented urban population growth and climate-driven shocks. This is also impacting critical biodiversity and natural resources that sustain cities. 

Placing towns and cities onto a resource efficient, sustainable development path is a huge opportunity for national development and local economies. Shifting to clean public transport and improved vehicle efficiency, for instance, could create up to 23 million additional jobs a year worldwide, while improving air quality, reducing traffic injuries and cutting congestion. Investments in the energy efficiency of buildings could create up to 16 million additional jobs a year worldwide, while reducing ill-health and increasing worker productivity.

National governments hold many of the policy levers needed to drive and support systemic, rapid progress, particularly in smaller urban areas that have fewer resources and less capacity. National legislation and regulation is required to promote green development and to incentivise investment in zero carbon, rather than polluting businesses. National governments can also support local actors to go further and faster and to accelerate the progress of the slowest. Getting secondary cities onto a low-carbon track is key. Future emissions and population growth will come from these cities, which are less well equipped to step up to the challenge.

But even with clear national policies in place, mobilising investment for sustainable urban infrastructure often proves a challenge: the global shortfall exceeds a trillion dollars every year. Public budgets cannot fill this financing gap, so there is an urgent need to crowd-in private finance to low-carbon infrastructure projects. Dr Bambang Brodjonegoro (Minister of National Development Planning, Indonesia) emphasised the importance of establishing robust fiscal systems and strong public sector technical capacity as a precondition for effective public-private partnerships and other financing strategies.

Putting the world’s cities onto a fundamentally more sustainable and equitable path will require collaboration between all levels of government, communities, businesses and civil society. GEF is now set to deliver a major boost to these partnerships around the world.

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Federico Long September 10, 2018

Hi, iam from uruguay and i work for urban planning in a little town, i think that in order to make a substantial impact on city's sustainability we have to work not only from all levels in government and society, but also from the rural áreas because city's in many cases are just the end of the mechanism that began on the rural soil

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