Seizing the urban opportunity: Invest in low-carbon cities to protect climate and boost jobs

Commentary, Online Exclusive Feature / 2021

Seizing the urban opportunity: Invest in low-carbon cities to protect climate and boost jobs

by Coalition for Urban Transitions

The Coalition for Urban Transitions released a new report Seizing the Urban Opportunity on 17 March 2021. The report focuses on emerging economies as they face particularly complex challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The six key countries — China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa — produce about a third of global GDP and 41 per cent (%) of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. This makes up 42% of the world’s urban population. Consequently, the extent to which these six emerging economies can spur cities to catalyse sustainable, inclusive and resilient growth is crucial not only for their future, but for the entire world as well.

Image courtesy of the Coalition for Urban Transitions

This report offers analysis and recommendations tailored to each country’s specific context. The report outlines how these national governments can create low-carbon, resilient and inclusive cities by:

  • Adopting technically feasible, currently available low-carbon measures to cut emissions from buildings, transport, materials use and waste;
  • Enabling climate-resilient infrastructure and urban development, adopting new technologies and practices to reduce climate risks and addressing the socio-economic drivers of vulnerability; and
  • Introducing measures to support marginalised communities, making cities even stronger and more inclusive, with particular benefits for the most vulnerable populations.

The opportunity for cities to be a meaningful part of tackling the climate crisis cannot be understated.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Global Leader, Climate & Energy, WWF-International, and Coalition Senior Ambassador

“The opportunity for cities to be a meaningful part of tackling the climate crisis cannot be understated. This new report, inspired by best-in-class examples from six countries, shows how national governments everywhere can significantly enhance their economic and climate goals by investing in low-carbon, resilient and inclusive cities. Ahead of COP26, this must be an urgent call to action for governments to ensure cities are included in their national climate plans and long-term strategies,” emphasised Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Global Leader, Climate & Energy, WWF-International, and Coalition Senior Ambassador.

Supported by over 40 organisations, the report kick-starts a programme of engagement with key decision-makers and national leaders on the road to COP26 in Glasgow. Many countries have strengthened their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), but much of the discussion on cities’ role in achieving those goals—and in building back better post-COVID—still focuses on high-income nations. To fully realise cities’ enormous potential, we need to better understand the challenges of low- and middle-income countries, and the report provides evidence-backed solutions to create zero-carbon, resilient and inclusive cities for all.

Image courtesy of the Coalition for Urban Transitions

By 2030, nearly a billion people will be added to the global urban population. Trillions of dollars will be invested in urban infrastructure.

Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics

“This report is as critical as it is timely. By 2030, nearly a billion people will be added to the global urban population. Trillions of dollars will be invested in urban infrastructure, in the decade where global CO2 emissions must be reduced by around half for the target of holding temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. Focusing on compact, connected and clean cities will be at the heart of achieving climate ambitions and to finding a new path for strong, sustainable, resilient and inclusive growth. This will make it is easier to move, breathe and work productively, where greenhouse gas emissions can be far lower than in existing urban structures,” shared Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.

How national governments can recover from COVID-19, secure shared prosperity, and decarbonise through cities

The report finds that cities could play an integral role in reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 through the adoption of technically feasible solutions, such as retrofitting and new green buildings, transforming urban mobility, and decarbonising energy systems. The report shows that annual emissions from key urban sectors could be cut by 87–96% by 2050 beyond the six countries’ existing NDC commitments.

The importance of compact and connected cities and the role they can play in combating inequality for the urban poor is also highlighted by the report. Improving public transport would connect millions of urban dwellers to better jobs and educational opportunities.

Similarly, with better urban mobility, traffic congestion and air pollution can be reduced and create healthier living conditions for residents to thrive in. By redesigning cities to be more compact with improved urban mobility through public transit, as well as cycling and walking lanes, a more equal playing field can be created that addresses some of the inequalities faced by the urban poor.

Governments must act now to make cities more inclusive and ensure the most vulnerable are not left behind.

Sheela Patel, Former Board Chair, Slum Dwellers International (SDI), co-founder of SDI and founding Director of SPARC India

“As COVID continues to disproportionately impact the urban poor, national governments must proactively plan for a just and resilient urban transition. They need to introduce measures to support marginalised communities without social safety nets and expand economic opportunities for the urban poor. Governments must act now to make cities more inclusive and ensure the most vulnerable are not left behind,” shared Sheela Patel, Former Board Chair, Slum Dwellers International (SDI), co-founder of SDI and founding Director of SPARC India.

The report also brings to light many low-carbon measures that can boost resilience. Restoring and protecting mangroves near coastal cities can reduce those cities’ vulnerability to storms by providing natural buffers and also boost carbon storage since mangroves are powerful carbon sinks. Installing rooftop solar panels can offer more reliable power to areas with frequent outages and reduce energy bills.

By decarbonising cities, millions of new jobs could be created, thereby contributing to a just transition the report shows.

Adopting the low-carbon measures modelled could support about:

  • 15.2 million new jobs in China in 2030
  • 8.2 million in India
  • 4.5 million in Brazil
  • 2.3 million in Indonesia
  • 700,000 in South Africa
  • 500,000 in Mexico

Additionally, most of these jobs are tied to local communities and many do not require advanced skills. Low-carbon urban measures could create an estimated 8–21 jobs per $1 million spent compared to three jobs in the fossil fuels sector.

Meanwhile, the report also reveals there is a strong economic and business case for investing in a low-carbon urban transformation. Analysis by Vivid Economics for the report shows that achieving the scale of carbon emission reductions detailed above in key urban sectors in the six countries would not only pay for itself, but would yield returns with a net present value of more than $12tn to 2050, based on direct energy and material cost savings alone. China, for example, could see tremendous economic benefits. An investment of $5.5tn between now and 2050 would yield returns with a net present value of $7.7tn.

Seizing the opportunity

Launched ahead of COP26, the report offers a roadmap for national governments to place cities at the heart of solving the triple challenges of COVID-19 recovery, sustainable and inclusive development, and climate change. Given their role as engines of countries’ economies, in order to build back better, multiple stakeholders will need to seize the urban opportunity.

National governments can support cities by funding and financing sustainable and resilient urban infrastructure, supporting local climate action in cities through governance and fiscal reforms, and placing cities at the heart of an overarching national strategy to deliver prosperity while combatting climate change.

Urban leaders can work to strengthen the role of communities, especially poor and marginalised people in planning and decision-making. They can also pursue pilot projects in cities that can be emulated nationwide.

Multilateral and development financing institutions have a vital role to play by making urban action a priority in climate and development finance. They can support low-carbon and resilience-building investments with longer payback times, such as building retrofits and new construction to maximise energy efficiency and ecosystems restoration.

The principles of resiliency and inclusivity underpin shared prosperity with the ultimate beneficiaries being people and communities.

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director, UN-Habitat

“The experience from the six emerging economies featured in this [report] demonstrates that it is possible to build prosperity and one’s national economy whilst pursuing a zero-carbon development pathway. In fact the principles of resiliency and inclusivity underpin shared prosperity with the ultimate beneficiaries being people and communities. I look forward to work with the Coalition to ensure that we translate knowledge into policy and action, which are important steps to realise the transformative potential of cities towards zero carbon and climate resilience,” commented Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director, UN-Habitat.

For the full report, click here.


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