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Resource experts call for new strategy to build better cities

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As urban areas around the world continue to grow, cities are placing an increasingly heavy burden on our environment. Policymakers should therefore treat resource efficiency as equal in importance to climate policy if they want to move towards a sustainable future, according to a new report from the International Resource Panel.

The Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements of Future Urbanization calls for a new strategy to meet the needs of 21st-century urbanization, one that would result in cities that are low carbon, resource efficient, socially just, and in which people can live healthy lives.

Unless the world’s urban areas make optimal use of their resources, cities will soon demand far more resources than our planet can sustainably provide, placing a huge burden on agriculture, energy, industry and transport. In the next 30 years, 2.4 billion people are likely to move to urban areas, bringing the proportion of the global population living in cities by 2050 to 66 per cent.

The annual amount of natural resources used by urban areas could grow from 40 billion tonnes of raw materials in 2010 to 90 billion tonnes by 2050, an increase of 125 per cent, if changes are not made to how cities are built and designed.

The report, the 25th from the International Resource Panel, an eminent group of experts set up by UN Environment in 2007 to examine natural resource use, was one of two summary reports to be launched at the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur today.

“There are already far too many people around the world who are already being poisoned by breathing dirty, dangerous air in the cities they live in, and it’s alarming to see that this trend is set to worsen,” said UN Environment chief Erik Solheim.

“We can and need to do far better. We can design better cities, where people can walk or cycle instead of having to use cars, where waste is recycled rather than burned or tossed into landfills, and where everyone can access clean fuels and energy.”

Slightly more than a third of urban growth is expected to come from three countries: India (expected to contribute 404 million new city-dwellers), China (292 million) and Nigeria (212 million). At the same time, currently one in three urban residents lives in a slum or informal settlement, often without access to proper housing or basic services.

The increase in urban population will require the building of new cities and the expansion of existing ones. Building and operating these new cities, and supporting the urban lifestyles of those who live in them, requires billions of tonnes of raw materials, such as fossil fuels, sand, gravel, iron ore, wood and food.

Historically, existing cities have been spreading at a rate of two per cent a year, increasing global urban land use from just below one million square kilometres to 2.5 million in 2050, and putting agricultural land and food supplies at risk.

To achieve a transition to low-carbon, resource-efficient, socially just cities, the report recommends:

  • Monitoring the flow of resources entering and leaving the cities to understand the local situation and to help develop resource-efficient strategies.
  • Planning cities to have:
  • Compact growth, to avoid urban sprawl and so economize on the square kilometres of asphalt, the concrete, the electricity and the water wasted in spread-out cities.
  • Better connections by efficient and affordable public transport (e.g., light rail, bus rapid transit).
  • Liveable neighbourhoods where design encourages people to walk or cycle.
  • Resource-efficient urban components, such as car sharing, electric vehicles and charging point networks, efficient energy, efficient waste and water systems, smart grids, cycle paths, energy-efficient buildings, new heating, cooling and lighting technology, etc.
  • Infrastructure for cross-sector efficiency, such as using waste heat from industry in district energy systems and industrial waste materials in construction, such as fly-ash bricks.
  • Establishing a new model for city governance and politics that supports imaginative business propositions and experimentation.

The second report launched today, Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Transitions in the ASEAN Region: A Resource Perspective, was produced by UN Environment with scientific input from International Resource Panel member Dr Anu Ramaswami.

It examines future urbanization in the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Indonesia, the Philippines, Viet Nam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore and Brunei — where 205 million people are expected to move to cities by 2050, resulting in the rapid rise of 200 new small cities or urban areas with populations of fewer than 500,000. This is likely to take place against a backdrop of increasing air pollution and climate risks, and in a region where 73 million people live in slums, 120 million lack access to electricity and 280 million lack clean cooking fuels.

The report says that collaborative governance, at all levels, and long-range planning will be needed to transform the region’s cities. Strategies suggested include:

  • Undertaking national and cross-ASEAN urbanization planning to balance economic growth across a range of city sizes and to preserve high-value agricultural land and ecosystem services.
  • Promoting compact, mixed-use, accessible and inclusive cities through regional and city planning to reduce land-use planning, streamline infrastructure provisions and promote sustainable mobility (such as public transport, car-sharing, walking and cycling).
  • Developing zero-slum cities through land-use planning that prevents slum formation and rehabilitating existing slums in resource-efficient, disaster-resistant, multistorey buildings.
  • Promoting resource-efficient, resilient buildings and electricity grids.
  • Promoting resource efficiency at the systems level across the city through innovative and profitable exchanges of “waste” energy and materials.
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Urban Development

Traditional building practices offer sustainable solutions as African cities grow

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Image: Kéré Architecture | The Naaba Belem Goumma Secondary School being built

Located on the dusty outskirts of the Burkina Faso town of Koudougou, the Lycée Schorge Secondary School shows what is possible when you mix traditional techniques and new materials.

The school consists of nine modules arranged around a central courtyard, protecting the central space from wind and dust. Each module is built out of locally sourced laterite which is cut into bricks and left in the sun to harden. These bricks absorb the heat during the day and radiate it at night.

A secondary façade made of local eucalyptus wood wraps around the classrooms like a transparent fabric and creates various shaded spaces to protect students from stifling daytime temperatures.

The building, designed by the Berlin-based, Burkinabè founded architecture firm Kéré Architecture, is an example of how countries on the continent are using traditional building techniques to lessen the carbon footprint of their buildings.

Research shows that these techniques can help prevent the need for air conditioning, the long-range transport of building materials and concrete production, all of which contribute to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions driving the climate crisis.

With 70 per cent of Africa’s building stock that will exist in 2040 still to be constructed, experts say these energy-saving techniques are crucial.

“Traditional sustainable construction and building practices are a cornerstone of African cultural heritage,” says Jonathan Duwyn, from the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Buildings and Construction, Cities Unit.

“Locally adapted sustainable design, construction, practices, and materials coupled with renewables and innovation represent a great opportunity for both mitigation and resilience in Africa’s rapidly growing building stock.”

The continent accounts for roughly 6 per cent of global energy demand, with more than half of this coming from its buildings. Given that Africa’s population is expected to reach 2.4 billion people by 2050, with 80 per cent of this growth occurring in cities, it is clear that sustainability needs to be a core principle of all future buildings.

With the launch of UNEP’s 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction at the UN Climate Conference (COP27) today, the focus is on how Africa can manage this urban growth and increase the resilience of its housing stock while avoiding an increase in GHG emissions.

It is a tall order, yet inspiration can be found in Africa’s past. Travel through Africa today, and hints of this past can be found everywhere, from Eswatini’s beehive huts to the Drogon cliff villages of Mali to the mud-brick mosques of West Africa.

“Africa is rich in renewable energy sources, solar and wind, with nearly half of the planet’s total renewable energy technological potential,” Duwyn says. “Locally adapted sustainable design, construction, practices, and materials coupled with renewables and innovation represent a great opportunity for both mitigation and resilience in the face of Africa’s rapidly growing building stock,” he adds.

This is particularly important given the projected demand for air conditioning units as more people get access to electricity and temperatures rise. “We expect cooling to be a major challenge when it comes to residential energy demand in Africa in the future,” says Duwyn. “This is why it is so important to ensure new buildings use natural cooling systems wherever possible.”

Only 43 per cent of the population had access to electricity in 2021, and the International Energy Agency estimates that African household energy demand by 2030 for cooling will increase the most. 

Another Kéré Architecture project utilizing sustainable design and building practices is the Gando primary school. It is constructed of clay/cement hybrid bricks for a dry-stacked brick ceiling – instead of the more common corrugated metal roof – allowing maximum natural ventilation.

“These projects show that sustainable building practices are possible when innovative techniques are used,” says Duwyn. “And as Africa’s climate warms even more, it is vital that we embrace sustainable building designs that do not need costly and damaging cooling systems.”

As the Building Global Status Report highlights, Africa is rich in natural, sustainable materials such as adobe, laterite, termite mound soil, timber, stone, bamboo, sand and dry vegetation. While traditional construction techniques include rammed earth, sun-dried bricks, compressed earth blocks, wattle and daub, cob, timber-framed construction, sandbag construction and thatched roofs.

Ensuring sustainable materials are used is particularly important, given that according to UNHabitat, more than half the population (excluding in North Africa) live in overcrowded informal settlements, which are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“Quality, sustainable housing is an important way of ensuring vulnerable populations are more resilient to the effects of the climate crisis,” Duwyn says. Particularly the frequency of natural disasters has tripled in the past 30 years, with Sub-Saharan Africa home to nearly three-quarters – 393 million – of the global number of children living in countries affected by emergencies.

As the report makes clear, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to tackling Africa’s future building needs. But, as it is rich in renewable energy sources, and most of its building stock over the next two decades still needs to be built, the continent is well placed to be a leader in sustainable design practices.

UNEP

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Urban Development

Advanced forecasting to help millions on coasts and in cities cope with climate-change impacts

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By SARAH WILD

In the freezing reaches of Greenland, fissures in the ice sheet mark the battle lines in the fight against climate change. Greenhouse gases (GHG) are driving up global temperatures, melting the ice and pushing more and more icebergs to break away from glaciers and ice sheets. When the ice melts and the water enters the ocean, it adds to rising sea levels, putting millions of people who live in low lying coastal areas across the globe at risk.

The Greenland ice sheet stores the equivalent of seven metres of sea-level rise, while the Antarctic ice sheet contains about 60 metres, and their rate of melting depends on a variety of factors, including how quickly humans reduce GHG.

‘It is more or less certain that we will not escape from a two-metre sea-level rise,’ said Gaël Durand, an ice-sheet specialist at the Université Grenoble-Alpes in France. ‘The question is now “When will it happen?” Will it be in 100 years or in 2000 (years)?’

This question, of how much and when, is not a simple one –– but the answer is vital for humanity to adapt to climate change. Unlike mitigation, which means reducing GHG emissions, climate adaptation aims at building resilience to the inevitable effects of a changing climate. But in order to adapt, decision makers need reliable information on what will happen to the climate in different regions. 

This is where climate predictions and projections from scientific research play a crucial role: predictions attempt to provide estimates in the short-term — for example, the average annual or seasonal temperature in five years; whereas projections extrapolate what could happen in the long-term, under different possible futures, determined by more or less ambitious mitigation responses.

In the EU-funded PROTECT project, Durand and colleagues are working on projections, to more accurately determine what will happen to the ice sheets in a world of rising temperatures and how this will impact communities living in coastal areas. 

Coastal users

‘We want to provide projections, but we want to be sure that these projections fit the needs of users, particularly coastal users,’ said Durand.

More than 200 million Europeans live within 50 km of the coastline, but rising sea levels will affect them all differently. ‘Typically the needs are very different, depending on the use you have of coastal land,’ explained Durand.

Using satellite and remote sensing data, as well as ice sheet data, the PROTECT project models how the ice sheet behaviour in Greenland and the Antarctic, as well as glaciers, will impact people on a regional and even local scale, with case studies in France, the Netherlands, Greenland, and the Maldives (in the Indian Ocean). ‘We work with stakeholders and practitioners to better understand what type of projections they need,’ Durand says.

Co-design with users is a feature of another EU-funded project, the European Climate Prediction System (EUCP), this one focusing on predictions. In the past, ‘it was often the climate scientist speaking and the user listening’, said Jason Lowe, science lead for the project and the UK Met Office’s principal fellow and head of climate services for government. ‘But we realised that the successful projects were when the user speaks more and the climate scientist listens and adapts to that.’

Innovation in knowledge production

For example, users were asking, ‘What does (climate change) mean for adaptation of cities? What does it mean for water availability? What does it mean for coastal protection?’ Lowe said.

‘You need different types of information to inform the solution.’

The EUCP brought together users and organisations interested in climate predictions, as well as superusers which had specific problems to solve, to see how climate science could bolster their adaptation strategies.

With their needs in mind, the project developed new methods to create more accurate decade-timescale forecasts. EUCP contributed to the World Meteorological Organization’s decadal forecasts exchange and produced new data that informed the sixth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Flash flooding

‘So if they’re looking at flash flooding, if they’re designing drainage systems, for instance, this data is available as a result of EUCP.’

While the project mostly focused on temperature and rainfall, it was also able to forecast storm tracks through the Caribbean and investigate wind droughts, which is when the wind speed is low, in France.

However, beyond the successful predictions, it’s the new methods that may become the project’s most important legacy, said Lowe.

One new method was the ability to combine different global climate models, giving more accurate models greater weight than those which were less precise in a given scenario. ‘We produced the first comparison of different methods to weight the projections,’ Lowe said.

The EUCP Atlas of climate projections provides pre-processed projections for Europe, and facilitates a comparison between them.

Bridging predictions and projections

The project team also developed a way to link predictions to longer-term projections. This method, allowing people to link decadal forecasts to longer-term climate projections, will also be one of the enduring legacies of the project, according to Lowe.

With more work to be done in decadal climate forecasting and projections, the EUCP will be succeeded by the ASPECT project (which stands for Adaptation-oriented Seamless Predictions of European ClimaTe), due to start next year. This continued effort is expected to improve our ability to forecast far into the future.

‘We also think we can take the idea of joining predictions to projections, and move it from something that’s academically interesting to something that can be used in climate services,’ he said. Climate services provide climate information which allows people and organisations to organise their activities and adapt to climate change.

Even if humanity cuts its emissions drastically, the climate is already changing and people around the world need to adapt. To do this, they need the vital and impartial information that projects such as PROTECT and EUCP provide.

Research in this article was funded via the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.   

EU MISSION: ADAPTATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Whether it’s forest fires, floods or droughts, the consequences of climate change are already with us, and Europe is warming twice as fast as the world average.

Adapting to climate change means taking action now to prepare for both the current effects of climate change and future ones.

The Mission on Adaptation to Climate Change focuses on supporting EU regions, cities and local authorities in their efforts to build resilience against the impacts of climate change.

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Urban Development

‘Act Local to Go Global’ provides universal theme for World Cities Day

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The actions cities take locally to create a sustainable world will reverberate globally, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday, underlining the need to ramp up progress towards a more just and equitable future for people and the planet. 

In his message marking World Cities Day, the UN chief highlighted the critical role urban areas have in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The SDGs outline global action and targets across 17 critical areas including poverty reduction, gender equality and clean energy. 

“On World Cities Day, let us resolve to work with cities to build a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient world for all,” he said. 

‘Backsliding’ on SDGs 

The SDGs were agreed by countries in 2015, and Mr. Guterres noted that next year marks the mid-point on the path to the 2030 deadline. 

However, an honest look so far reveals a bleak picture, he added. 

“Across a range of critical goals – from poverty and hunger to gender equality and education – we are not seeing progress, but backsliding,” said the Secretary-General. 

“The consequences are dramatic: escalating climate chaos, growing poverty, rising inequalities, and more.” 

Change course now 

The Secretary-General stressed that “we must change course – and we can”

In line with the Day’s theme – ‘Act Local to Go Global’ – he said the SDGs are “global in scope, but implementation is local”, meaning that their implementation happens largely in cities. 

Currently, more than half the global population lives in urban areas, rising to two-thirds by 2050. 

Cities also generate over 80 per cent of global economic activity, and account for over 70 per cent of carbon emissions. 

Leading the ‘green’ transition 

The Secretary-General pointed out that many cities are already leading the transition to renewable energy, setting credible net-zero targets and building climate-resilient infrastructure. 

“I encourage them to work with their governments and sister cities across the world to share experiences and help raise ambition,” he advised. 

The UN chief underlined that the actions cities take locally towards sustainability will be felt across the world. 

Furthermore, he added that “the transformative policies they pioneer today can catalyze change that will save lives and livelihoods everywhere tomorrow.” 

Celebrations return to Shanghai 

The global celebrations for World Cities Day are held in a different city each year. Shanghai served as host of the first celebrations back in 2014, and the festivities returned there this year. 

Shanghai is China’s largest city, and the country’s President sent a congratulatory letter which was read by Party Secretary of the Shanghai Municipality, Chen Jining. 

Other dignitaries who addressed the opening ceremony were the Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, Ni Hong, and the Mayor of Shanghai Municipal Government, Gong Zheng. 

‘Urban October’ ends 

World Cities Day, held annually on 31 October, closes out a month of advocacy for sustainable urbanization, or “Urban October”. 

Like the Secretary-General, the head of the UN agency that promotes a better urban future for all highlighted why countries must step up the pace. 

“We have only about 87 months, 380 weeks or 2,600 days left to implement the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The best way to do so is by ensuring our cities and communities are sustainable. The time to act is now,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat

A government priority 

UN-Habitat has been advocating for the localization of SDGs since the endorsement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agency’s work in this area is guided by what it calls by a partnership-based territorial approach, human rights, and multilevel governance. 

“The priority for any responsible government is to ensure that the quality of life for its citizens and to make cities more child friendly, accessible for the elderly, greener, and friendlier,” said UN Resident Coordinator in China, Siddharth Chatterjee. 

The global celebrations for World Cities Day 2022 were held both in-person and online.  They were livestreamed at the UN complex in Nairobi, Kenya, the home city of UN-Habitat. 

Representatives from China, Eritrea and Kenya attended the Nairobi ceremony, while more than 350 people from around the world joined the hybrid event, with over a dozen UN Member States participating online from Nairobi.  

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