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Urban Development

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

Inclusive cities critical to post-pandemic recovery

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Participants at the World Urban Forum being held in Katowice, Poland. Photo: UN Habitat

A UN conference on transforming the world’s urban areas is underway in Poland this week, which will include a dialogue on urban crisis recovery and reconstruction, centered on neighbouring Ukraine.

Hundreds of delegates from across the globe will be attending the World Urban Forum, which opened on Sunday in the southern Polish city of Katowice.

WUF11 is taking place at a critical time, as cities tackle the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and conflict.

Making cities more inclusive must be part of post-pandemic recovery efforts, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in remarks to the event.

Cities are central to virtually every challenge we face – and essential to building a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient future. They have been at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the UN chief said in a video message.

“As we look to recover, promoting more inclusive, gender responsive urban infrastructure and services will be critical to give all people – especially young people, women and girls – access to a better future.”

Cities as climate leaders

Mr. Guterres also highlighted another important role for the world’s cities.  They must be at the forefront of action to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,

More and more cities across the world are committing to the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or before.

The sooner these commitments are translated into concrete actions, the sooner countries will achieve green job growth, better health, and greater equality, he said.

“But cities cannot do it alone,” he stressed.  “They need more coordinated support from all levels of government; stronger partnerships with the private sector and civil society; and greater fiscal and policy space to bring solutions to scale.”

Harness the potential

The Secretary-General underlined the UN’s commitment to help countries achieve the common goal of green, just and healthy cities.

“We have the blueprints for progress,” he said, referring to the New Urban Agenda, a 2016 framework that promotes sustainable urbanization; the ongoing Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the 2030 Local Coalition, a partnership between the UN and government leaders to advance the SDGs.

“Let us harness the transformative potential of urbanization and build a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive future for all.”

The World Urban Forum was established in 2001 and is convened biannually by UN-Habitat, officially the United Human Settlements Programme, which works for a better urban future.

With only eight years left to make cities safer, resilient and more inclusive, the goal of SDG 11, urban areas across the world are already under pressure.

‘Triple C crisis’

The strain will only mount as every region is expected to become more urbanized, some at an incredibly rapid pace.

The global urban population is set to jump from 56 per cent last year to nearly 70 per cent by mid-century, representing a further 2.2 billion people, mainly in Africa and the Middle East.

“While the current reality is undoubtedly very difficult, we must maintain our focus and double our efforts on sustainable development,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the UN-Habitat Executive Director. 

“We urgently need innovative solutions for urban areas to respond to this triple C crisis of COVID, climate and conflict, which are having a devastating impact on cities, leaving people and places behind,” she added.

Special focus on Ukraine

The UN Forum is the  leading global conference on sustainable urbanization, and this marks the first time it is being held in Eastern Europe.  Poland is proud to play host. 

“This is a region that has come a long way – from communist rule, which had little regard for human life, let alone its quality, to democratic governments working for the common good,”  said Grzegorz Puda, Minister of Development Funds and Regional Policy.

More than 800 government officials and representatives, including over 50 ministers and deputy ministers, will attend the Forum which is co-organized by the Government of Poland and the city of Katowice.

The programme has been significantly modified to reflect the conflict in neighboring Ukraine, UN-Habitat said. More than three million Ukrainians have taken refuge in Poland since the war began four months ago. In his remarks, the UN Secretary-General expressed gratitude for the country’s “extraordinary solidarity” with Ukrainian refugees.

The Polish Government will spearhead a special session focused on the post-crisis and post-disaster reconstruction of urban spaces and population return. 

“We must also remember all those who are facing crisis at the moment in countries affected by war and disaster, such as Ukraine. In this context, we decided to include the topic of rebuilding cities after crises in the WUF11 programme,” said Małgorzata Jarosińska-Jedyna, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Development Funds and Regional Policy.

Abandoning coal, embracing technology

Katowice, which hosted the COP24 UN climate conference four years ago, was chosen largely due to its successful transition from a centre of the coal and steel industries, to a city based on technology, culture and events.

The Forum will be the first big international meeting held there since the start of the pandemic.  More than 16,000 people are expected at the city’s International Congress Centre, built on the site of a former coal mine. 

“Our city has undergone enormous changes in the last two decades,” said Marcin Krupa, Mayor of Katowice.  “I believe that cities are the engines of change towards creating a better world – one that is safer, more sustainable and inclusive.” 

The Forum will conclude on Friday and the expected outcome is the Katowice Declared Actions, which will outline commitments and plans to support sustainable urbanization.

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Urban Development

Sustainable development hinges on fate of world’s cities

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The future of sustainable development will hinge on the fate of cities, officials told a special meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on Thursday, stressing that the more than half of the world’s population currently live in urban environments, a number likely to rise to nearly 70 per cent by 2050.

“The actions we take now must lead us to…a new social integration based on the principles of prosperity, transformation, adaptation, equity and respect for human rights,” said Martha Delgado, President of the UN-Habitat Assembly.

Highlighting urbanization as one of today’s great megatrends, she joined others in calling for resilient, sustainable “smart cities” that are more inclusively governed and better prepared to navigate future shocks and crises.

New Urban Agenda

Thursday’s special meeting on Sustainable Urbanization and the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda will complement a similar High-Level meeting of the General Assembly, on 28 April.

Both sessions are designed to explore how the UN system can better support countries in implementing the New Urban Agenda – a landmark plan for the world’s urban spaces, which was adopted in 2016 at the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

The Agenda put forward standards and commitments for the planning, construction, development, management and improvement of urban areas.

It also articulated a shared vision for cities as just, safe, healthy, accessible and affordable places where all inhabitants are able to live without discrimination.

COVID-19 disparities

Opening Thursday’s meeting, ECOSOC President Collen Vixen Kelapile urged participants to examine urban issues through the lens of inequality, especially given the stark disparities illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sustainable development will hinge on how we manage urbanization,” he said, adding that current discussions should be framed in the context of responding to COVID-19 response and the climate crisis.

Noting that 1.2 billion people in the global South currently live in informal settlements and slums, Mr. Kelapile reminded that they have long struggled to prevent disease transmissions, now including COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in the global North, dependence on welfare, where available, increased manifold during the pandemic and many people entered the ranks of the homeless. 

In response, cities have deployed creative actions and provided services in underserved areas, while new urban models are beginning to pay more attention to pedestrians and mixed land uses.

Reclamation, inclusivity, greening

UN-Habitat chief Maimunah Mohd Sharif agreed that the world’s cities have been absorbing much of COVID’ s socioeconomic impact.

However, that has often resulted in closer cooperation between national and local governments, which, in turn, has led to greater reclamation, greening and inclusive use of public space. 

Spotlighting a fresh opportunity to build on those partnerships, she said: “We can provide basic services in a more equitable manner, reduce commuting through tele-work and reduce carbon emissions by prudent use of energy.”

Upgrading slums and addressing the housing affordability crisis remain the highest priorities for countries.

Meanwhile, as cities have been forced to augment emergency social spending during the pandemic, she warned that Agenda implementation continues to be impeded by inadequate financing, further crippled by dramatic expenditure reductions.

COVID-19 demonstrated that real value comes from providing affordable service, rather than extracting profit, she added.

Accelerating progress

“Achieving the New Urban Agenda’s goals will accelerate our progress on human welfare and security globally,” said General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid.

He joined other speakers in emphasizing that, when properly managed, cities are among humanity’s most sustainable living environments.

On the climate front, adhering to the Agenda will help keep alive the goal of limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C.

Cities ‘connect the dots’

Echoing those points, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said the Agenda also includes measures to secure land tenure, promote affordable housing, enhance mobility and provide services that are accessible to all.

“Cities can spearhead innovations to bridge the inequalities gaps, deliver climate action and ensure a green and inclusive COVID-19 recovery,” she said.

The deputy UN chief added that urban spaces “connect the dots” on many of today’s global challenges.

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Urban Development

Cities that Plan for Age-Readiness can Reap Lasting Social and Economic Benefits

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As the world gets older and cities expand to accommodate more people, focusing on making urban infrastructure and services ‘age-ready’ — conducive for older persons and younger ones alike — can have universal social and economic benefits, a new World Bank report shows.

“Silver Hues: Building Age-Ready Cities” builds on the reality that for the first time in history, there are more persons aged 65 years or over than there are children under five. In fact, by 2050, one in six people will be 65 or older. At the same time, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on older persons globally, while the world contends with the climate crisis and continued conflict and violence across the world, even as more older persons move to cities and towns to live close to younger family members or have access to essential services like healthcare or public transportation.
This makes it crucial for policymakers to proactively think about and invest intentionally in planning and designing cities for an age-ready future. The report provides a roadmap on how focusing on six key areas – universal design, housing solutions, multigenerational spaces, physical mobility, technology, and efficient spatial forms – can help policymakers design adaptive, productive, and inclusive age-ready cities.

“An age-ready city is a city for all. Age-readiness is not just about older persons. It has universal benefits and is conducive to better living for everyone. That is why we feel it is critical for countries – those that have a large aging population and those that will see aging in the coming years – to think about how their cities and towns can be planned and designed for an age-ready future,” said Sameh Wahba, Global Director for the World Bank’s Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice.

Silver Hues: Building Age-Ready Cities offers key reasons for why this can be one-in-a-lifetime opportunity for countries:

The age-readiness of cities can have benefits for all age groups and cater to distinct needs that are age-agnostic – for example, open spaces like parks and gardens and community amenities like libraries are not just for older persons – everyone benefits from these services.

About 15 percent of the global population has disabilities but over 46 percent of persons over the age of 60 have one or more disabilities. Investing in accessible infrastructure and signage, for example, helps older persons lead dignified, empowered lives without needing constant assistance.

There is some evidence that the benefits of proactively designing and maintaining accessible infrastructure outweigh the costs, especially for cities whose financial resources are scarce.

Age-readiness is also smart economics – older persons represent a large, attractive market for goods, services and investments, so building healthcare, technology and leisure solutions that work not just for older persons, but for everyone regardless of age, disability, gender, and income, will benefit the community at large.

There are immeasurable social and cultural benefits for cities to be age-ready. Older persons pass on invaluable social and cultural knowledge, behaviors, and emotional and psychological counsel to younger generations, in addition to how often they pass on their financial savings.

Making cities work for older persons as well as they do for younger age groups helps countries nurture strong constituencies and underscore their commitment to inclusion in its truest sense and caring for diverse population groups.

The report suggests that cities can reach their goal to be age-ready by building a long-term vision, investing in data and analysis, consulting with a diverse group of stakeholders on proposed measures, designing practical and lasting measures while articulating the role of the public and private sectors, of communities, academia, civil society, and external institutions, instating ways to implement policy actions and evaluating these actions for their effectiveness.

Aging is a predictable reality – so planning for it and ensuring that urban infrastructure and services work across age groups is not just inclusive but is also economically and socially beneficial for cities. Walkable cities, accessible public transit options, safe, good housing and innovative technological services and solutions are not just for older people — they provide universal benefits. The report posits that age-readiness should be an essential part of countries’ plans as they look to a post-COVID-19 future.

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