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Changes in building and construction have great potential to slow global warming

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Most of us spend a large chunk of our lives in one building or another, but have you ever stopped to consider the greenhouse gases linked to the construction of these buildings?

One way to reduce greenhouse gases is the use of recycled and more environmentally friendly building materials.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) International Resource Panel has just published a recent report titled Resource Efficiency and Climate Change: Material Efficiency Strategies for a Low-Carbon Future. Commissioned by the G7 countries, it shows that natural resource extraction and processing account for more than 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress, and around half of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The findings point to opportunities to reduce these impacts through material efficiencies in homes and cars.

According to the Panel’s modelling, emissions from the material cycle of residential buildings in the G7 and China could be reduced by at least 80 per cent in 2050 through a series of material efficiency strategies.

A design with fewer or alternative materials, and more recycling of construction materials are among the most promising strategies, it says.

More concretely, the Panel’s modeling tells us that within the buildings and construction sector, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 350 million tonnes in China; 270 million tonnes in India, and 170 million tonnes in G7 countries, between 2016 and 2060.

“Policy intervention from different angles is required to achieve these savings,” says the head of UNEP’s Cities Unit, Martina Otto.

“Policies can influence how people live, which materials they use and how they use them. Instruments such as taxation, zoning and land use regulation play a role, but so do consumer preferences and behaviour.Building codes and standards drive building performance and connect building design to policy. They can encourage or constrain material efficiency and circularity.”

According to the 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, almost 40 per cent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions are from the buildings and construction sector.

”In the buildings and construction sector, much attention was concentrated on ‘operational energy efficiency’, the energy used in buildings and which can be influenced by building design, insulation, passive solutions for heating and cooling, appliances and systems improvements as well as maintenance and usage,” says Otto. “But we also need to look at materials to reduce pressure on natural resources and ‘embodied carbon’.” Embodied carbon is the amount of carbon (CO2 or CO2 emission) to produce a material.

Building design and the use of recycled and alternative materials

In G7 countries, material efficiency strategies, including the use of recycled materials, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the material cycle of residential buildings by 80 to 100 per cent in 2050, the Panel’s report suggests. Potential reductions in China could amount to 80 to 100 per cent, and to 50 to 70 per cent in India in 2050.

“There are many different options. For example, sustainably managed and harvested timber has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 to 8 per cent in 2050 in the G7,” says Otto. “There are also a variety of new products, for example from agricultural waste, that could help close loops towards circularity. Choices need to be locally appropriate and include sustainability considerations.  

“Designing buildings using less material (savings of 8 to 10 per cent in 2050 in the G7, according to the Panel’s report) is another thing to look at, alongside passive cooling and heating and natural light to reduce operational energy at the same time.”

The consumption angle

Measures with the highest impact and lowest cost include getting greater use out of buildings for more hours per day and extending the lifetime of buildings (the Panel says up to 70 per cent savings could be achieved by 2050 in the G7).

Improved recycling could reduce greenhouse gases by 14 to 18 per cent in 2050 in the G7. Overall, cumulative savings in the period 2016–2050 from these strategies in the G7 would amount to 5 to 7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent, says the report.

Looking at the whole building life cycle, material efficiency strategies could reduce emissions in 2050 from the construction, operations and dismantling of homes by 35 to 40 per cent in the G7. Analogous savings could be up to 50 to 70 per cent in China and India.

“Virgin material taxation and removal of virgin resource subsidies should be key options for policymakers,” says Otto. The Global ABC Roadmaps 2020–2050 provide targets and timelines to achieve zero-emissions, efficient and resilient buildings and construction.

The world must immediately begin to deliver faster greenhouse gas emission cuts to keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C, says the November 2019 edition of UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report.

“To achieve this goal, we will need to use the full range of emission reduction options. We need progress in all sectors: energy, industry, agriculture, forestry, transportation and buildings, better integration across sectors, and urban planning and design to meet this target,” says Otto.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

Vietnam Can Lead ASEAN through the Smart Cities Network Vision

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When Vietnam takes over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2020, the country outlined five priorities to be executed throughout the year. Among all, strengthening the institutional capacity of ASEAN and leveraging the Industrial Revolution 4.0 to address inequality, are the most challenging goals to be realized within a year. Other scholars such as David Hutt, meanwhile, even pointed out that Vietnam’s most important goal is to secure a united stand on the Code of Conduct to be negotiated with China this year ⸺ a consensus that if achieved, will ensure any agreement regarding the contentious South China Sea dispute to be mutually favourable for all the disputants involved. 

That said, the unexpected outbreak of the COVID-19 has greatly disrupted Hanoi’s initial ambitions to drive the ASEAN agenda into new heights. Not only the global pandemic postponed the regional bloc’s summits and meetings to later dates, it also compelled leaders of all ASEAN countries to devote great focus on this outbreak at the ASEAN level. While the online Special ASEAN Summit last April was able to result in a joint statement to address the COVID-19 pandemic under the chairmanship of Vietnam, it was by no means, adequate for the country to play an active role as the ASEAN’s driver this year. Given the COVID-19’s disruption to ASEAN’s annual meetings and summits, it is not hard to see why Hanoi is seeking to extend another year of its chairmanship despite this may clash with Brunei’s preparations as the next chairman of the Southeast Asian bloc.

Utilizing Confidence Gain in COVID-19 Response

As the country which managed to control COVID-19 and keep it to an excessively low number of transmitted cases, Vietnam has gained an unprecedented confidence among its ASEAN peers as well as those outside of the region. As highlighted by Coleman and Sheehan, Vietnam became a new model of how a developing country can respond to COVID-19 without devoting mass resources for the purpose. Dubbed as low-cost COVID-19 strategy as coined by different scholars, the Vietnamese success stemmed on its abilities on three fronts: mobilizing all segments of society in responding to the crisis, initiating early prevention measures (mask-wearing policy, targeted testing, contact tracing and quarantine) and utilizing different technologies (website and app) for public communication.

With such coordinated measures, Vietnam has cast itself as an exemplary model in controlling the pandemic despite not having colossal resources in conducting mass testing and epidemic surveillance of South Korea, China and Singapore. As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese COVID-19 response model is a highly attractive model which can be readily emulated by other developing countries with limited resources at hand. Within ASEAN, the Vietnamese model can be replicated in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar ⸺ countries that would need effective COVID-19 response strategy without their governments devoting huge costs for it. By occupying the ASEAN chairmanship status, its COVID-19 success resonated confidence from the whole regional bloc on its ability to play a leading role in this testing time. To take it further, such gain of confidence within ASEAN, should be further capitalized by Hanoi to implement regional agendas that would bring pragmatic returns to all member states in the short-run.

Pushing for Short-Term Goals within ASEAN Smart Network Cities (ASNC)

With the COVID-19 pandemic yet to be effectively controlled around the world and has the capacity to recur in the near future, no one knows how much longer would the restarted economies in the bloclast. This situation, in turn, made the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) as reached by the Southeast Asian bloc in April 2018, an ever more important priority for immediate implementation. From Anbound’s observations, there are two reasons for such urgency.

First, with COVID-19 vaccine yet to be developed at least not in the immediate future, reduction in face-to-face engagements has become a norm of human interactions. As such, there is no other choice for ASEAN players, whether they are the governments, businesses and average citizens, but to adapt to this new norm in their daily activities. By pushing for the immediate implementation of the ASCN, Vietnam will be able to utilize technology to rejuvenate the economy and improve the lives of ASEAN citizens in the post-pandemic era.

By all means, this will establish Vietnam’s legacy as the chairman that brings ASEAN out of the socio-economic crisis that was brought by the COVIS-19 pandemic. Considering that the 36 cities have planned their strategic projects within the Smart City Action Plans document, what Hanoi could do is to call for an online meeting with the respective national leaders and relevant city mayors, and designate certain short-term goals to be realized by the end of 2020. These goals can be any easier and achievable goals in the three pillars of technological utilization, industrial automation and digitalization of economy.

Second, similar to becoming a model for COVID-19 response, Vietnam could also become another model of smart cities for the lower developing peers in ASEAN. In the course of adapting smart cities vision to its local conditions, Hanoi can share with their peers on how to kick-start smart cities governance in three different cities with three distinctive needs, namely, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang. As a latecomer to the smart cities game, these three Vietnamese cities have demonstrated their capabilities to prioritize smart solutions according to their local needs instead of developing all sorts of smart solutions in their localities.

Whereas Hanoi had started the iParking app for drivers and looking to venture into smart solutions in healthcare, education, transport, and tourism, Danang planned to become a green city through the adoption of smart solutions. As such, the latter’ had begun developing its natural disaster management systems that set it apart from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. As for the southern city of Ho Chi Minh, it is planning to become the first smart city of Vietnam and placed emphasis on attaining five capabilities for achieving a comprehensive smart city: development of cloud computing infrastructure, utilization of Big Data, building of data centres, erection of security centres, and establishment of an open data ecosystem. Without question, the cost-effectiveness approach of these three Vietnamese cities, is highly relevant to those lower developing peers in ASEAN in which limited resources are available for them.

An Opportunity Not to Be Missed

Within the ASNC vision, Vietnam is provided with an opportunity (not to be missed) in leading ASEAN toward the next stage of economic development. While it may want to gain specific achievements in the other areas of South China Sea issue and ASEAN’s institutional capacity, realizing these goals requires a lot of diplomacy with the other nine member states. With a little more than half year left, it is still challenging for the country to achieve these goals despite it is not an entirely impossible endeavor to start with. Pushing for short-term goals within the ASNC vision, meanwhile, will help Vietnam to get quick result and one that is also vital for the new course of ASEAN’s economic development.

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Urban Development

Pandemic and the lessons for global metro cities

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Across the world, cities are on the frontline of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. Starting from metro cities with overwhelmed heath care systems, they are experiencing unprecedented strain across social, economic and environmental systems as economies grind to a standstill. Public transit systems are in a financial tailspin. Already a challenge at the best of times, the struggle to provide even basic access to water and sewerage is now especially acute in many growing cities across the global south. Daily wage earners and the urban poor of all stripes are suffering the most from the dual blows of lost income and a scarcity of city services and social safety nets that can protect them at a time of need.

Changes occurring in cities

Even before the current pandemic we knew cities needed to change significantly to meet the global goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals, or New Urban Agenda. The IPCC’s report on what it will take to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius argued that all cities need to be net zero carbon emitters by 2050. To reach these goals will require major alterations to how we build, manage and live in cities – not just change, but transformational change. Such change may seem beyond reach, but from energy to housing to mobility, sustainable, cost-effective, more inclusive solutions are at hand. We simply need to have a vision bold enough to change people’s understanding of what’s possible in cities and the courage to make it happen at scale. One of the unintended consequences of this crisis has been that we have seen, quite dramatically, that radical change to our everyday lives and systems is indeed possible. Amidst the fear and uncertainty, people are also seeing fragments of what a future city could look like. For example, people across the world are breathing better air than they have in decades due to a dramatic decline in vehicle traffic and factory output. In Jalandhar, an industrial northern city in India, people woke to see snow-capped Himalayan ranges 200 miles away, a sight not seen in generations. People are unwittingly enjoying “car-free street days” on a daily basis, finding that walking and biking are also viable and even preferred. Emergency workers are finding that cycling is simply the fastest and safest way to get around. Cities like Bogotá, Berlin and Mexico City have expanded pedestrianization efforts to encourage these activities. Learning a lesson from this national and city leaders should use this opportunity to focus on four key areas where transformational change is possible:

Planning and development of city system

The most immediate need is to work with partners to generate the data required at the city and neighborhood scales to better monitor and respond to changing conditions on the ground. Cities cannot fix what they do not understand, and this crisis has made clear just how little many municipal governments understand about what is happening in their cities, or the potential impact of different policy options. Creative partnerships with communities, NGOs, the private sector and universities are necessary to fill the gaps. Hong Kong and Singapore set up public health monitoring and response systems during the SARS outbreak, for example, that prepared them well to handle COVID-19 now.We are seeing that social, economic and environmental resilience are all closely linked as three interconnected systems with significant dependencies on each other.  Cities function as systems, and this pandemic has created a major opportunity to build back better, more inclusively and with greater resilience to future shocks. We should focus on giving cities the technical support and data to create integrated social, economic and infrastructure strategies at the local level. And at the national level, we need to improve governance to allow more seamless national-local coordination for emergency response and recovery. What happens in cities, does not stay in cities. But cities cannot do it on their own. They often need help from regional and federal authorities, including fiscal transfers and national sectoral policies, to realize significant change.

Required safety net of all types

This pandemic shows the fragility of many of the jobs that underpin urban economies, in cities of all types. In the United States, more than 26 million new jobless claims have been filed so far. In India, more than half a million migrant workers have left cities since the announcement of a nationwide lockdown. Informal workers, from day laborers to Uber drivers, have no employment contracts, insurance or income at times like this, and now face the impossible choice of exposure to the coronavirus or hunger. These jobs in the informal sector, the gig economy and numerous low-wage formal sector jobs are crucial to urban economies. But workers in these sectors lack the fiscal and social safety nets necessary to ride out a crisis. Cities need to shore up urban economies with stronger social and fiscal safety nets for informal and low-wage workers, including targeted income support and increased access to social and economic services. This pandemic is exposing existing fault lines with respect to poor physical infrastructure and inequalities in access to core urban services. It’s also raised questions about healthy density in cities. The most successful cities are able to achieve livable density – a balance where benefits of agglomeration are significantly higher than the cost of congestion. This crisis should make cities rethink how they can achieve livable density. In fact, density is a precondition for effective urban service provision. It’s the lack of access to essential services such as water, housing and health care, that has exacerbated the challenge of responding effectively to COVID-19. Large proportions of people don’t have decent housing to self-isolate, basic water and sanitation to wash hands, access to health care or transport options to get help, or jobs they can do at home. These challenges, which they cope with every day, are now exacerbated.

We need to bring laser sharp focus on investing in infrastructure and housing for better health, wellbeing and resilience for the urban poor. This involves identifying and investing in high-risk locations, including poor and under-resourced communities. It means improving infrastructure in informal settlements across the developing world to bridge the urban services divide. And it means building infrastructure that is intentionally geared towards a low-carbon future. If we want to maximize the chances for success, however, and have enough doses to end the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, current piecemeal efforts won’t be enough. If ever there was a case for a coordinated global vaccine development effort using a “big science” approach, it is now. An initiative of this scale won’t be easy. Extraordinary sharing of information and resources will be critical, including data on the virus, the various vaccine candidates, vaccine adjuvants, cell lines, and manufacturing advances. Allowing different efforts to follow their own leads during the early stages will take advantage of healthy competition that is vital to the scientific endeavor. All of this will require substantial funding, which is the big ask of big science. Late-stage clinical trials are not cheap, nor is vaccine manufacturing. Ideally, this effort would be led by a team with a scientific advisory mechanism of the highest quality that could operate under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). In many ways, COVID-19 is perfectly suited to a big science approach, as it requires multilateral collaboration on an unprecedented scale. In the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, everyone must win.

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Urban Development

Building urban resilience in the face of COVID-19

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As COVID-19 continues to spread across the UNECE region, local governments are on the front lines of addressing this unprecedented pandemic. With the ambition to amplify local solutions, UNECE will bring together mayors from Europe, North America, Central Asia and the Caucasus to strengthen the resilience of cities to emergencies, including to COVID-19. With some 75% of the population living in cities, the UNECE region is among the most highly urbanized in the world, turning resilient cities into key drivers for sustainable development in the region.

The  Forum of Mayors will be held on 6 October 2020 at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, with possibilities for online participation. While local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the immediate focus in many cities, the Forum will also give space to discuss long-term resilience strategies in cities, including actions mitigating the effects of climate change and natural hazards.

UNECE region in the eye of the storm of COVID-19

As the UNECE region has become the hardest-hit hotspot of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities play a crucial role in mitigating and adapting to the virus. ​​The original focus of the Forum has been adjusted to now provide space for mayors to share different local policy responses aiming to protect the health of residents, address the unprecedented social and economic impact of the virus and keep forging a path to a more sustainable and resilient future.

Urban resilience, however, is not limited to the response to pandemics. Tackling the climate crisis remains one of the key challenges of our times. Today, cities are a key contributor to climate change: they consume roughly 60% of the planet’s energy and generate 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, cities are also an integral part of the solution in tackling the climate emergency. Leadership on local level is crucial for ambitious climate action, with cities playing an increasingly prominent role in advancing actions to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. The impact of climate change on urban life is visible throughout the UNECE region, including through increased numbers of extreme weather events such as floods, storms and other natural hazards.

Cities are crucial for achieving the SDGs by 2030

With only ten years left to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is important to recognize the key role of cities as drivers for a sustainable transformation. SDG 11 provides a clear set of targets and indicators for making cities and human settlements more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But city action is not only critical for the achievement of SDG 11 – it is crucial to reach all 17 SDGs by 2030. In fact, it has been estimated that 65% of the total SDG targets need to be delivered by local authorities and actors.

Forum of Mayors: amplifying local voices for collective action

Following-up on the discussions of the Day of Cities convened by UNECE in April 2019, its Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management has decided to convene a Forum of Mayors in 2020 and 2021. The Forum will submit its recommendations to the Committee on how to address the challenges faced by local authorities in the region. This will help shape the policy priorities and programme activities of the intergovernmental Committee, which is composed of representatives of UNECE’s 56 members States. Preceding the Forum, “SDG 11 Day” will bring together partners and key stakeholders for an expert exchange on the most pressing issues on urban sustainability.

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