Life has always been hotter in cities. Concrete soaking up and radiating sunlight, and the concentration of people, cars and machinery crank up the temperatures, making them on average 5–9°C warmer than rural areas.
This has led to fast growth of power-hungry air conditioning units delivering cooling. The problem is that this cooling has been pumping out excess heat and greenhouse gas emissions, which warm the planet and so lead to an ever-greater need for cooling.
Cities will still have to keep their citizens cool. We have already witnessed growing heat waves, both in frequency and amplitude. They severely affect the functioning and health of cities and their citizens. Rising temperatures contribute to heat-related deaths, reduced workforce productivity—estimated at 2.2 per cent of working hours lost worldwide by 2030—and poor air quality, which disproportionately affects the poorest communities. Rising temperatures mean that 1.6 billion people could face average summer temperature highs of 35°C by 2050, approximately 1.4 billion more people than today.
We need better ways to keep cool.
“About 40 per cent of energy consumed by buildings worldwide is used for space heating and cooling,” said Martina Otto, who heads the secretariat of the Global Alliance on Buildings and Construction at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “Space cooling is amongst the fastest-growing building end uses, and with higher temperature, more urbanites and rising standards of living, we will need a multiplicity of solutions to provide thermal comfort and protect human health.”
Active cooling needs to be cleaner and more efficient while we design buildings for more passive cooling and include nature-based solutions in buildings and cities’ public space. And we need to shift from the notion of cooling down space to providing thermal comfort.
Cities already starting to deliver
There are global and local efforts to address the energy efficiency and climate impact of the cooling sector, in particular through the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. These actions can make a huge difference, but cities can do a lot more.
The Cool Coalition—a global network connecting over 80 partners—is working towards a rapid global transition to efficient and climate-friendly cooling. It will work with C40 cities and its network of more than 90 members to share expertise and integrate urban cooling into their climate action plans, as well as with the GlobalABC, who issued a call: “Buildings—keeping cool, naturally”.
By implementing clean cooling strategies, cities can not only reduce the demand for cooling but align their policies with other areas of importance, such as air quality, public health and energy resilience.
Cities are working on innovative solutions, and C40 cities are delving deeper into them as they meet in Copenhagen this week for the C40 World Mayors Summit. These range from scaling up district cooling initiatives to cool roofs and green roofs and facades, to urban landscaping with nature-based solutions such as green corridors, a well-articulated offer of green public spaces.
“Cities have a critical role to play in delivering efficient, clean cooling for their citizens” said David Aitken, Director, Innovation at Cool Coalition partner the Carbon Trust. “In their role as a facilitator, planning authority, asset owner and financier, cities have many levers to pull that can influence the way cooling is produced and consumed. Taking action on cooling at the local level will also leverage co-benefits relating to health and wellbeing, air quality and living standards.”
There are examples from all over the world.
Following the 2010 heatwave, Ahmedabad in India developed a plan for cool roofs, awareness raising and cooling stations. Since 2013, the city has avoided an estimated 1,100 deaths per year. It has acted as a blueprint for 30 cities in India, who have now released or are developing their own plan.
As part of their commitment to the Paris Climate agreement, Melbourne, Australia is banking on nature-based solutions. The goal is to plant 3,000 trees—which provide shade, reflect sunlight and release moisture into the air through their leaves—every year and cool the city by 4°C.
Copenhagen, Denmark, uses seawater in its district cooling system, reducing CO₂ emissions by up to 30,000 tonnes per year. The goal is to expand district cooling further and contribute to Copenhagen’s target of becoming CO2-neutral by 2025. Other initiatives in Copenhagen include green roofs for municipal buildings and a smart city energy lab that demonstrates how electricity and heating, energy-efficient buildings and electric transport can be integrated into an optimized system.
Cool roofs and new building materials on the rise
Cool roofs are gaining traction globally. Through its CoolRoofs Initiative, New York City has already painted more than 5 million square feet of its roofs with a reflective coating. Meanwhile, the Global Cool Cities Alliance has launched the Million Cool Roofs Challenge, a US$2 million global competition to rapidly scale up the deployment of highly solar-reflective roofs in developing countries.
“The concept of cool roofs is simple, but implementation faces barriers in the global south,” said Kurt Shickman, Executive Director of the Global Cool Cities Alliance. “We need to raise awareness of the opportunity. The availability of coatings and other cool roof solutions is often limited or non-existent. There is a lack of financing and investment. The Million Cool Roofs Challenge seeks to address each of these challenges.”
Green roofs and facades provide thermal insulation and help clean the air by trapping particulate matter. They offer the opportunity for urban agriculture and onsite wastewater treatment, adding further benefits. Bio-based building materials, which have a lower climate impact than concrete and store less heat, also offer real potential to improve the building envelope. While concrete has a high thermal mass, it’s extremely energy intensive to produce: 8 to 10 per cent of the world’s CO₂ emissions come from cement. “Alternatives such as bio-based materials are increasingly being used and can help reduce environmental impacts, while also providing the desired thermal mass,” said Otto. “For example, we have engaged in a partnership with Yale University to explore the use of such alternatives, from certified timber to bamboo and use of agricultural waste products such as coco fibre.”
It is clear that cities have a wide menu of options to choose from. They can walk the talk through public procurement decisions regarding their own buildings, set performance standards, use their planning authority and enter into partnerships with the private sector. By taking advantage of these options, cities can turn down the heat in the city and help put the world on track for a cooler future.
As urbanization grows, cities unveil sustainable development solutions on World Day
Over half of the world’s population now live in cities, with numbers expected to double by 2050, but while urbanization poses serious challenges, cities can also be powerhouses for sustainable development; something the UN is spotlighting on World Cities Day, marked 31 October.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) will host a celebration at its Paris Headquarters on Thursday, convening representatives from all corners of the world for discussions on how cities can combat the climate crisis, create more inclusive urban spaces, and contribute to technical innovation.
Cities provide a wealth of opportunities, jobs included, and generate over 80 per cent of gross national product across the globe, according to UN estimates. Urban areas also account for between 60 and 80 per cent of all energy consumption, despite only occupying three per cent of the planet’s surface and are responsible for three quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions.
In addressing these pros and cons, the Organisation has advocated for a “people-centred” development model, and aims to “re-humanise cities” in the face of trends impacting them, from population growth, demographic shifts, and increasing the risk of disasters induced by climate change.
This year’s theme: “Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations” spotlights the role of technology and young people in building sustainable cities. To do so, Thursday’s commemorative event will be organized along four key discussion themes: ‘Cities 4 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’, ‘Cities 4 Climate Action’, ‘Cities 4 Communities’, and ‘Cities 4 the Future’.
In line with its multidisciplinary mandate, UNESCO’s 2004 Creative Cities Network continues to harness the various ways cities spanning the globe are placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans.
From gastronomy in Tucson, Arizona, to design in Nagoya, Japan, the network engages more than 246 cities, which integrate creative approaches in their development plans, 66 of which UNESCO announced as newcomers on the World Day. See the complete list of cities, and their creative undertakings here.
For World Cities Day this year, UNESCO is partnering with the UN”s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), UN-Habitat, and refugee agency (UNHCR) to amplify the concerted action of the United Nations for cities alongside their planners and other urban players.
The UN-proclaimed World Day serves as a call for States, municipalities and city dwellers to work together for transformative change and sustainable strategies for cities, as urbanization continues to swell.
UN chief calls cities a battleground for climate crisis
Secretary-General António Guterres explained in a statement attributable to his spokesperson, that “the choices that will be made on urban infrastructure in the coming decades…will have decisive influence on the emissions curve. Indeed, cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost.”
From electric public transport to renewable and energy and better waste management systems, cities are “hubs of innovation and creativity, and young people are taking the lead.”
In addition, he highlighted that World Cities Day comes as “urban October” concludes, a month dedicated to raising awareness of urban challenges, and successes in sustainability.
“Let us commit to embracing innovation to ensure a better life for future generations and chart a path towards sustainable, inclusive urban development that benefits all”, he encouraged.
Spotlight on cities
Over half the world’s people live in cities. As more and more people move into cities from rural areas a number of environmental and social challenges arise, including overcrowding in slum areas, poor sanitation and air pollution. However, urbanization can also present great opportunities and is a critical tool for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development if done right.
Cities have always been drivers and incubators of innovation. It is often said that the battle for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will be won or lost in cities. For this to happen, cities will have to continue to drive innovation to achieve a lasting impact in communities and to ensure that “no one and no place” is left behind.
This year’s World Cities Day, hosted by the City of Ekaterinburg, Russian Federation and co-organized by UN-Habitat, the Shanghai People’s Government and the City of Ekaterinburg, will focus on technology and innovation: digital innovations that can be used for urban services to enhance people’s quality of life and improve the urban environment; technologies for building more inclusive cities; opportunities for generating renewable energy and; technologies that can promote social inclusion in cities.
This year’s theme for World Cities Day on 31 October is “Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations.”
Technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual, augmented and mixed reality and the internet of things present efficiency and communications opportunities requiring new governance frameworks. This rapid rate of innovation also puts pressure on urban policymakers and managers to strengthen their capacity when it comes to understanding, procuring and regulating new technologies.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) works in partnership with UN-Habitat and others to promote the sustainable development of cities.
Jointly with the World Health Organization, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the World Bank, we lead BreatheLife, a global campaign to mobilize cities and individuals to protect our health and our planet from the effects of air pollution.
Together with Cities Alliance, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and the World Bank, we launched the Knowledge Centre on Cities and Climate Change (K4C), an online repository of information on climate change that advocates informed decision-making in local governance.
Check out UNEP’s work with partners relating to cities, covering green spaces (and the importance of trees in soaking up pollution), sustainable transport, district heating and cooling, sustainable waste management, sanitation and more.
Four Regional Development Banks Launch Joint Report on Livable Cities
Rapid urbanization has provided most cities in the world with opportunities to provide more sustainable, vibrant, and prosperous centers for their citizens. But they must first address challenges such as inadequate infrastructure investments, pollution and congestion, and poor urban planning, according to a new report released today.
The report, Creating Livable Cities: Regional Perspectives, looks at urbanization trends across emerging and developing economies in Africa; Asia and the Pacific; emerging Europe, Central Asia, and the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean; and Latin America and the Caribbean. It is a joint publication by four regional development banks (RDBs) operating in these regions—African Development Bank (AfDB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
“Cities offer access to key infrastructure, institutions, and services for a good quality of life,” ADB President Mr. Takehiko Nakao said. “They can be centers of innovation for a more livable future for all. But realizing that potential requires forward thinking and flexible planning, adequate capacity at the municipal level, and good governance.”
Mr. Nakao took part in a launch event at the IDB headquarters today in Washington, D.C., with the presidents of the other three development banks: Mr. Akinwumi Adesina of AfDB, Mr. Suma Chakrabarti of EBRD, and Mr. Luis Alberto Moreno of IDB.
The world’s urban population has grown from just 750 million in 1950 (or 31% of the total population) to 4.2 billion in 2018 (55% of the total population)—a number that is estimated to reach 5.2 billion in 2030 (60% of the total population). While the majority of leading economic hubs are still in advanced economies, the center of economic activity is moving toward the developing and emerging markets, the report says. Asia and Africa will account for 90% of urban population growth between 2018 and 2050, with more than a third of this growth to happen in just three countries—the People’s Republic of China (PRC), India, and Nigeria.
Although large and still dominant, megacities of more than 10 million people and national capitals are not the fastest-growing urban areas. Urban areas with fewer than 1 million residents account for 59% of the world’s urban population and are experiencing a faster growth rate across the regions, the report says.
Cities need large scale investments to develop and maintain infrastructure and services such as urban transport, water supply, sanitation, and solid waste management. In the face of rapid growth, overstretched services, skills shortages, and increased vulnerabilities to disasters are adding to cities’ environmental stress.
The publication examines the types of policy interventions and approaches needed to promote competitive, inclusive, equitable, and environmentally sustainable and climate-resilient cities—four factors that taken together make cities “livable.”
“RDBs play an important role in identifying, distilling, and diffusing knowledge and actions that can accelerate progress toward creating more livable cities,” the report says. Making cities more livable is one of the seven operational priorities of ADB’s Strategy 2030. ADB’s Livable Cities approach puts people and communities at the center of urban development, and promotes strengthening urban institutions through holistic and participatory urban planning and sustainable financing, and use of data and digital technologies to improve urban services to the residents.
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