Investments in sustainable cities crucial for progress: UN

KARACHI: Investing in sustainable infrastructures and resource efficient technologies in cities offers a golden opportunity to deliver economic growth with lower rates of environmental degradation, reductions in poverty, cuts in greenhouse gases, and improved well-being, according to a new report released by the United Nations.

Around three-quarters of the world’s natural resources are already consumed in cities, and the proportion of the global population living in urban areas is set to rise to 70 per cent by 2050. At the same time, cities generally offer lower per capita resource use and emissions than their surrounding areas. achieving inclusive sustainable development for all, says the UN study, requires ‘decoupling’ city-based economic growth rates from the unsustainable consumption of finite natural resources, which has characterised most urban development to date.

As the price of depleting natural resources continues to rise, promoting sustainable urban infrastructures can benefit the environment and shield cities from potential economic and social instability in an increasingly resource-constrained 21st century. Melbourne, Australia, has seen a 40 per cent drop in emissions by introducing energy efficiency measures in public buildings, while in Cape Town, South Africa, a re-fit of low income housing with solar water heaters and efficient lighting has saved over 6,500 tons of carbon per year, cut respiratory illnesses by 75 per cent, created scores of green jobs and reduced the cost of hot water for poor households.

Thirty such case studies are featured in the report, City-Level Decoupling: Urban Resource Flows and the Governance of Infrastructure Transitions, produced by the International Resource Panel (IRP), which is hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Other efforts involve reducing oil consumption by moving more people and goods onto public transport powered by electricity, or re-establishing peri-urban farms to supply locally grown food. “To date, the trend towards urbanization has been accompanied by increased pressure on the environment and growing numbers of urban poor,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner at the launch of the report in Nairobi.

“But unique opportunities exist for cities to lead the greening of the global economy by increasing resource productivity and innovation, while achieving major financial savings and addressing environmental challenges. Although many cities are seizing such opportunities, a holistic vision for the urban centres of the future is still lacking.”

The study says much greater effort is needed to support new and improved infrastructure for water, energy, transport, waste and other sectors – generally located in and around cities – to wean the world off unsustainable consumption patterns, and avoid serious economic and environmental implications for future generations.

Some 60 per cent of the built environment required to meet the needs of the world’s urban population by 2050 still needs to be constructed. The cost of meeting the urban infrastructure requirements of the world’s cities between 2000 and 2030 is estimated at US$40 trillion – both through the building of new infrastructure (mainly in developing countries) or retrofitting existing facilities (mainly in developed nations).

There is a major opportunity, underlines the IRP report, to channel these funds into sustainable infrastructure that reduces carbon emissions, improves resource productivity, and avoids the resource-intensive urban planning of the past.

Additionally, infrastructure projects are a common feature of fiscal stimulus packages and development plans currently being put forward by the United States, China and the African Union – providing a major investment window for a concerted, international transition to a green economy.

“Older cities may have to retrofit and replace inefficient infrastructure into which they have been locked for decades to achieve decoupling, but newer and expanding cities have the advantage of flexibility. They can ‘get it right’ the first time,” said Joan Clos, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

“In an era of rising energy prices, an early transition to systems that consume increasingly cheaper renewable energy sources will pay off quickly,” added Dr. Clos. “When we look at the rising expenditures on urban infrastructure across the globe, we need to ask ourselves, what kind of cities of the future are envisaged by the designers and builders of these new infrastructures?”, said Mark Swilling, one of the report’s co-lead authors.

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