Cities are home to more than half of the world’s population and generate almost three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions. But as more governments declare a climate emergency, the Coalition for Urban Transitions concludes that cities can also offer solutions.
In a major global report launched this week, the Coalition finds that investing in zero-carbon cities has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent, generate more than $23.9 trillion in economic benefits, support tens of millions of new jobs and contribute to addressing pressing urban issues including air quality, congestion, and poverty alleviation, using existing technologies and practices.
But what does this look like on the ground?
As part of the Coalition’s three-year research effort, our team led by Professor Andy Gouldson at the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds has been gathering lessons from innovative low-carbon actions in cities and neighbourhoods across the Global South.
Our research shows that climate-friendly urban development has the potential to yield significant co-benefits in areas such as public health, job creation, and poverty alleviation. For those benefits to be realised and widely felt, effective governance, and attention to the needs of the urban poor, are critical.
For example, in Ahmedabad, India, we found that integrating informal workers from the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) into the city’s municipal waste management strategy resulted in significant improvements to the health, income and job security of waste pickers, who are often a city’s most marginalised workforce. In Ahmedabad, waste pickers prevent around 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually — comparable to removing 130,000 cars from the road every year.
In Kampala, Uganda, small and often informal enterprises also play an important role in municipal waste management, especially in informal settlements that are typically not served by city authorities.
Grants and land access from local governments support these organisations that are helping to alleviate urban poverty and tackle climate change by engaging in a variety of strategies — such as turning organic waste into biomass briquettes for cooking and delivering plastic waste to recycling companies. Waste workers recycle at least 3,600 tonnes of plastic waste — almost one fifth of what the city generates — each year.
Despite this, in both India and Uganda, livelihoods are threatened by modern technological solutions such as waste-to-energy plants. These “solutions” can displace informal and small-scale workers, have huge upfront costs, and are often not as efficient at collecting, sorting or recycling waste.
Our research shows that new technologies can have a more positive impact when linked to effective and inclusive governance arrangements. In Jinja, Uganda, city government officials worked with a local community to install solar streetlights in an informal settlement. This helps to make the streets safer, allows small businesses to stay open for longer and reduces the council’s electricity bills, while also preventing greenhouse gas emissions from conventional lighting electricity use.
More participatory practices like these can also help to build relationships between vulnerable citizens and government officials, establishing the conditions for longer-term structural change.
In Kerala, India, the state government collaborated with a women’s community-based organisation and a local sustainable architecture firm to build resilient public housing for the urban poor.
Today, these homes have the highest occupancy rates of any of the housing delivered under India’s Basic Services for the Urban Poor programme, thanks in large part to the participatory approach and the innovative, context-specific design.
Cities should be at the heart of nationwide strategies to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality and avoid climate catastrophe but local governments will not be able to realize these multiple benefits on their own. National governments must stand behind them.
Among other things, national governments should put in place flexible national arrangements that can be tailored to suit diverse local contexts, and reform national regulations that prevent cities from being able to take ambitious action.
They should ensure that a focus on technological advancement and “modernisation” is not at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society.
Most of all, national governments must empower cities to pursue low-carbon, resilient urban development in a just and inclusive way. This requires innovation not (only) in technology, but in governance.
Read more about The Coalition for Urban Transitions.