Day 6 – Cities: creating major challenges and opportunities for sustainable development

More than half of the global population currently resides in cities. Cities are places that foster innovation, efficiency, high productivity and are the main drivers of economic growth. Subsequently, cities are responsible for more than half of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, thus bearing high responsibility for climate change. Therefore, retrofitting cities and building sustainable should be a top priority of our governments, industries and civil society organizations. The Zero Emissions Cities project by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development engages in this challenge. This article will lay out some facts on the importance of cities, review the Zero Emissions Cities project by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and identify some challenges and opportunities related to cities.

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Let’s start with some numbers. In 2014, 54 percent of the global population lived in urban areas according to a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. This number is expected to grow to 66 percent in 2050. Moreover, a study by Mckinsey conducted in 2011 shows that 600 cities are projected to generate about 60 percent of global GDP. Subsequently, it should not come surprising that in 2011, cities account for 70 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. In addition, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests cities are responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions, with transport and buildings being among the largest contributors. Thus, cities are – and will become even more so – the main drivers of economic  growth, the main drivers of climate change and the most important place for human settlement. Therefore, it could be argued that creating sustainable cities should be our biggest concern in striving for sustainable economic growth, when fighting climate change and in creating secure, healthy, livelihoods for everyone.

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The World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), an “organization of forward-thinking companies that galvanizes the global business community to create a sustainable future for business, society and the environment”, initiated a project to stimulate collaborative action to successfully create zero emissions cities: the Zero Emissions Cities (ZEC) project. The ZEC project brings together several parties in order to spark an integral action in creating sustainable cities. Amongst others, they engage with engineers, architects, construction companies, municipalities and civil society and thereby initiate multi-stakeholder action, tailored to the needs a specific city. In 2015, the ZEC project was piloted in three cities (Amsterdam Zuidoost, Birmingham Smithfield market and Navi Mumbai Pushpak Nagar), with three cities to be added in 2016. It aims to make cities sustainable by – amongst other actions – transforming transportation, retrofitting buildings and stimulating production of sustainable energy. Even though results have yet to be shown, the employed approach seems like a great way to create synergy between different industrial sectors and enhance cooperation between the public and the private sector.

Nevertheless, the focus of the ZEC project is local. On the contrary, the earlier described challenges regarding cities are global. This brings us to a an important issue in creating sustainable cities on a global level. Creating international standards on sustainable development has proven to be a major challenge. Great progress has been made through the agreement reached during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015 (COP21), but several challenges remain. While creating international standards – which relate to countries, not cities – has been difficult in the past, we should not raise our expectations on creating international standards on cities. Let’s make the – rather pessimistic – assumption that we won’t be able to reach international standards on cities.


Example: La Cigale – retrofitting in practice

As mentioned earlier, buildings are one of the main factors in creating greenhouse gas emissions. Retrofitting our current buildings is therefore one of the main challenges in reducing the emissions of our cities. A perfect example of how this could be done is “La Cigale” in Geneva, a housing cooperative comprising 273 apartments in two buildings. All residents of the La Cigale unanimously agreed on the ambitious goal to make 70 percent of the buildings heating requirements sustainable. A team of architects, engineers, a utility company and a financial institution was put together to realize the renovation. A hot water and heating generation system, combining a heat pump, ice accumulator and solar thermal roofing, was developed and installed by Energie Solaire SA, and the renovation was completed in 2014. Currently, the system is able to cover 80 percent of the buildings’ heating requirement and supply the building with 97% of renewable energy. The full renovation cost around 19,9 million Swiss Francs. In order to finance the renovation, the rent only went up 50 Swiss Francs, conserving a rental level per room 50% below market average.

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There is light on the other side of the tunnel however. Sometimes, a pessimistic assumption can lead us to explore new pathways. Cities are not indefinitely polluting, overcrowded monsters that hamper sustainable development. As a matter of fact, as stated earlier, cities are the epicenters of innovation, they foster economic growth, enhance productivity and could ultimately form the main drivers in achieving sustainable growth for all. Some cities are already surpassing their governments in raising the bar on sustainable development, as is exemplified by the ZEC project. Several megacities in the world have joined C40, a network of cities comprising 25% of world GDP and 1 in 12 people worldwide (!), committed to addressing climate change by collaborating effectively, sharing knowledge and driving meaningful, measurable and sustainable action.

In conclusion, creating sustainable cities is a major challenge, but might as well create an opportunity for sustainable growth and stimulate us to explore new forms of governance. If we manage to make this happen, by 2100, cities will be our drivers of sustainable development. They will create economic growth and provide secure, healthy, livelihoods for all.

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