From COP21 to the New Urban Agenda

We are just a few days away from the opening of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21). A new climate agreement is an important stepping stone for the implementation of the global sustainable development agenda. Besides achieving an ambitious climate agreement, addressing climate financing and galvanizing action by all relevant stakeholders are further crucial elements of a successful COP21. This is a prime opportunity to move forward on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to pave the way for a more sustainable future.

Cities Facing Climate Change

We are at a critical juncture for the future of urbanization. The majority of the world population already lives in urban areas: 55 per cent of the total population. Predictions for the next 30 years suggest that it will rise to 70 per cent. Cities will need to host 3 billion additional inhabitants by 2050. Urbanization is a defining trend for the coming decades and we have a major opportunity to shape the way we live through good urban planning and design, good rules and regulations, and sound financial planning. Well-planned urbanization is a driving force and a source of development, which has the power to improve and change the lives of billions of people. If managed well, cities are engines of national economic growth, social prosperity and environmental sustainability.

While urbanization creates opportunities, it also exacerbates risks, and the speed at which it is unfolding challenges our capacity to plan and adapt. Inadequate urban planning and ineffective governance can result in significant economic, social and environmental costs, threatening the sustainability of urban development. Hence, urban institutional, policy, legislative and regulatory frameworks need to be reviewed in order to address the challenges posed by rapid urbanization, population growth, climate change and disaster risks. Ensuring engagement of all relevant stakeholders is crucial to foster broad-based support for implementation of policies. This should take place within the broader context of sustainable urban development.

Cities contribute up to 70 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and over 75 per cent of total global energy generated is consumed in cities. Urban residents are already exposed to the negative effects of climate change and many of the most vulnerable populations reside in cities. However, the solutions to this global challenge, whether through mitigation or adaptation, will also largely have to be found in urban areas. Cities have a major role to play not only as contributors to and victims of climate change, but also in providing potential solutions and serving as laboratories for innovative approaches.

Local government activity in this arena is a testimony to the increased leadership of cities in climate mitigation and resilience action. Urban planning and development should support reducing emissions from major urban sectors such as transport, buildings and waste management, while at the same time building resilience of urban systems and the built environment to withstand the adverse climate impacts and disaster risks. According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “55 per cent of the total urban land in 2030 is expected to be built in the first three decades of the 21st century”. The infrastructure built today, including buildings and roads, can have a lasting impact on GHG emissions as well as resilience. Cities must plan for low-carbon and resilient urban development in order to avoid lock-in effects of unsustainable urban patterns and models. Such planning processes need to take into account different cities’ particular emission and risk contexts. 

The improved understanding and progress in urban climate action and energy management are influencing urbanization patterns. Urban principles such as compactness, connectedness, inclusiveness and integration, as well as improved disaster risk management, contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as unlock opportunities for sustainable development. According to the New Climate Economy Report, a shift to more compact urban growth, connected infrastructure, and coordinated governance has the potential to “reduce urban infrastructure capital requirements by more than US $3 trillion over the next 15 years”.

The importance of urban infrastructure

The challenges facing urban infrastructure over the past 20 years have been shaped by a number of factors. These include an increase in the scale of urbanization with growing urban informality, a rising demand for services, the increasing unit costs of infrastructure provision associated with the sub-optimal expansion of cities, a legacy of under-investment in asset replacement and infrastructure extensions, poor operational management and maintenance, high and inefficient consumption of services among middle and high-income consumer classes, slow inclusion of a green infrastructure approach, and inequitable distribution of services and infrastructure, which continues to exacerbate the spatial and socioeconomic segregation in cities.

Moreover, the effects of the continuing reliance on outdated and inappropriate policies and business models have been compounded by the effects of climate change on services such as water supply, wastewater management, hydroelectric power generation, storm-water management and flood protection. 

Some of these challenges are not new, but their scope and complexity have been exacerbated by the rapid urbanization of the past 20 years and continuing weaknesses in understanding infrastructure and its associated governance and regulation, resulting in a lack of comprehensive long-term demand-based infrastructure planning. The rising demand for infrastructure services is directly related to increasing populations, GDP growth and rising per capita usage of infrastructure services associated with increasing incomes.

The gap between demand and supply, and the inaccessibility and unaffordability of services and infrastructure to segments of the population, represents a major weakness in policy, planning approaches and institutional capacity. The sectoral approach to infrastructure planning, investment and management also poses a constraint with increasing problems in achieving effective intersectoral coordination and communication aligned with a weak or non-existent understanding of the linkages between infrastructure planning and urban planning at the city level.

The rising demand for urban infrastructure has not been matched with a commensurate improvement in the financial and institutional capacity to manage urban infrastructure services. For example, revenue generation for services, such as solid waste management, water and electricity, typically lag behind the cost of service delivery. Thus, there is a need for more innovative and inclusive business models, especially models which can more effectively mobilize finance for investment and which can involve the private sector and community groups in the financing and management of services.  

The whole lifecycle costs of the systems of infrastructure, such as water supply, electricity, drainage and sewerage can be correlated to the pattern of urbanization, with compact cities providing the most cost-effective solutions to infrastructure investments. Inefficient consumption practices in urban areas are indicative of excessive consumption of electricity and water by high-income households, while many low-income households either have no access or are faced with intermittent or unaffordable supplies.

Seeking appropriate, affordable and accessible services and infrastructure systems requires a holistic approach to understanding, designing and planning networks of infrastructure and services, as well as solidly linking infrastructure provision and urban planning. This will allow us to then apply a proper risk management process, taking appropriate mitigation measures to reduce vulnerability and strengthening resilience of infrastructure systems.

Every city has strengths, weaknesses and ideally a vision for the future. When we have an understanding of our current performance, we can develop a long-term strategy and identify short-term goals as well as invest in systems, optimize services and discover new opportunities for growth.

Towards a new sustainable urban paradigm

Cities are among the most complex of human creations. Our quality of life will depend largely on the quality of the design of our cities. Investing in sustainable cities means investing in economic viability, social prosperity and environmental quality.

Today, more than ever, the power of well-planned urbanization for development is being recognized. The recent adoption of the 2030 Agenda is an important step forward in this sense as it recognizes the vital role of urbanization as a tool for sustainable development. This is reflected strongly in Sustainable Development Goal 11—Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable—and its related targets.

Sustainable development of cities must make best use of the economies of agglomeration, reduce mobility demand and strengthen social interactions. This can be achieved through the availability of high quality streets and public spaces, properly designed density, limited land-use specialization, better connectivity, energy and resource efficiency, increased urban resilience and practically enforceable norms and rules.

In October 2016, in Quito, Ecuador, the United Nations will hold the Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III. The Conference is to reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable urbanization and to focus on the implementation of a New Urban Agenda, building on the strong frameworks provided by the 2030 Agenda and the outcomes of COP21.

Habitat III will be an opportunity to assess the last 20 years of global urbanization, as well as to rethink its current pattern, developing a new comprehensive urban agenda, along with a coherent strategy for implementation at the various levels.

The road from COP21—hopefully with a meaningful climate agreement—to Habitat III will chart the path to a new agenda for the future of our cities and urban living, which will help us make great strides towards the implementation of the comprehensive and interconnected sustainable development agenda.