If you go to a conference on cities and climate change, you inevitably hear the statement that “countries talk…but cities act”. This message was loud and clear at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Summit in Johannesburg last month, where a new report released by the C40 and ARUP detailed the 8000+ initiatives that C40 member cities are undertaking to either reduce GHG emissions or increase their climate resilience. Since the first such report came out in 2011, more cities are reporting on their efforts, and those reporting are doing ever more, expanding the array of initiatives they have launched.
Also available in Thai
The wet season has already arrived in Thailand, and with it, also memories of the devastating floods that in 2011 affected more than 13 million people, left 680 dead, and caused US$46.5 billion in damages and losses. The impact of the floods on businesses and global supply chains has been well-documented with accounts making headlines throughout 2012. But how about the poor?
The flooding altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women - particularly those in already precarious situations. Two years onwards, what has changed? Having visited two slum upgrading projects in north Bangkok last month, there are insights relevant for other Asian cities grappling with rapidly growing populations, the force of natural hazards, and climatic uncertainties.
‘It’s raining, it’s pouring. The old man is snoring.’ Truth be told, I apparently snore, and I suppose I’m not that young anymore. But hard to believe, I’m sure this nursery rhyme is not about me. And despite the recent Noah-like floods in Europe, Bangkok, Calgary, Dhaka, Jakarta, New York and Toronto, it’s not really about any one city, or any one country, or even any one continent. But, ‘went to bed and bumped his head. And won’t get up in the morning,’ aptly describes our current political paralysis.
Many children know this song. Soon they will learn how their grandfathers and fathers slept through the rain.
Here in troubled Toronto and gritty Calgary, there was the inevitable debate on whether or not the recent floods could be attributed to climate change. ‘If it’s this bad now, what’s the future hold?’ people wondered. ‘Sleepwalking into trouble,’ came to mind for many.
For the East Asia & Pacific Transport, Urban & Disaster Risk Management team of the World Bank, a recent study trip to New Orleans was an eye-opener about how even the richest society in the world can face challenges that are strikingly similar to those of our client countries. In a city that is famous for the excesses of the French Quarter, the opulence of the Garden District and (since that fateful August in 2005) the desolation of the Lower 9th Ward, we saw how the impacts of a disaster are made all the worse when prosperity is not shared.
Two years after Katrina, I made my first trip to New Orleans to study the reconstruction process. The Lower 9th still had mountains of debris from flattened houses on most blocks. Where houses still stood throughout the city, FEMA’s iconic Urban Search & Rescue ‘x-codes’ remained as eerie signposts on the road to recovery.
A recent learning trip to New Orleans by the East Asia and Pacific Transport, Urban and Disaster Risk Management team introduced the unique charms of this city to many of us for the first time. Anyone who has been to New Orleans will remember the city for its historic but lively French Quarter, its living jazz tradition, with bands of talented local musicians playing for tips in the narrow streets, its Mardi Gras floats, its Cajun food, the oldest continually operating streetcar system in the world, and the varied history of the city that has resulted in its distinct Creole culture. As Dave Roberts, a local tour guide, explains to tourists, this was where the classical music tradition of the French colonialists came into contact with the pulsating African rhythms of freed slaves escaping to Louisiana from Haiti. The fact that jazz music was consequently born in New Orleans “was not a coincidence,” he says. “Few things are.”
Everywhere we went in New Orleans, we heard painful stories of those who had lived through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But what was striking was the pride that the residents of New Orleans have in their city and their determination to rebuild it. As my colleague Artessa Saldivar-Sali describes, city officials and the US Army Corps of Engineers have dedicated themselves to strengthening the city’s defenses in order to ensure that the next time the city is hit, it is better prepared. Well-educated New Orleanians and outsiders have come to work at the city redevelopment authority, the disaster preparedness agency, and community-based affordable housing organizations. These are people who could easily abandon New Orleans for well-paid private sector jobs in other US cities but who have chosen instead to use their talents in aid of the poor and vulnerable and towards the greater good of their city.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… Recover. As the population in large cities worldwide grows, waste management becomes an even bigger challenge. Recycling programs can divert large amounts of materials from landfills but some garbage still needs to be disposed of in landfills or Energy From Waste (EFW) sites. EFW facilities are capable of recovering energy from garbage that would otherwise be unused in landfills.
EFW and landfill gas capture systems operate on similar principles: produce steam to turn a turbine which generates electricity. The difference is the fuel used to produce the steam. Landfill gas based electricity generation relies on methane from the decomposition of organic material, while EFW facilities combust the solid waste. Both are good options as they prevent methane gas from escaping into the atmosphere. Methane has a global warming potential 72 times that of carbon dioxide. Both options sound good, so which is better? The better question is: ‘How much land and money do you have’?
This post was originally written for the Collective Solutions 2025 blog, a forward-looking study and collaboration platform to explore how the World Bank and similar multilateral institutions can best support developing countries to meet long-term sustainable development challenges in a post-2025 world. Read more about the study and join the collaboration site here.
I don’t particularly like cities. I’m a country boy. But I have lived in cities for the last 35 years; 10 in Bangkok, 15 in Manila, and 10 in Washington, DC (though DC might be called a town if it were in India or China). In the 1990s, I led work on environmental investments in east and south Asian cities. Most of the cities I worked in were severely “under-infrastructured and under-serviced,” and because many of them are built on coastal zones, this was particularly pronounced when it came to low-lying slums, drainage and sanitation. The heaviest price tag was often for drainage and flood control. During those years, I often wondered if and how the city and country leaders would ever catch up on infrastructure needs with the growing urban populations. Many have done well—while others are in worse shape now because they haven’t been able to meet the human tide.
While consensus in the COP18 negotiations has yet to be reached, most can agree that national governments cannot be solely responsible for addressing climate change. Local governments, the private sector and individuals must each play a part in supporting and growing the green economy. However, one way national governments can easily step up to the plate is to remove policy barriers for subnational actions on climate change.
New York City has been a global leader in proactively planning and preparing for climate change under Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s civic leaders. PlanNYC sets out clear goals and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30% and to increase the resilience of our communities, natural systems, and infrastructure to climate risks. It already started the process of adapting to climate change, including elevating infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plant, and expanding “green infrastructure” like marshes along the coast to buffer and limit flooding impacts.
But the events triggered by the unprecedented hurricane Sandy haven shown that what has been done is still not sufficient. What can we learn from the disaster? There will be a lot of valuable lessons coming out in the months ahead, as emergency responses are still ongoing and reconstruction are yet to start. Here are three early lessons:
When it comes to urban development, “green” has become the buzzword. Among the public, “green” is often understood to be synonymous with reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In policymaking, “green” has much broader implications. It can range from preventing, treating, and abating pollution, to preserving and restoring environmental quality. It may simply be providing basic urban services which improve the cleanliness of streets. Apparently, there are different shades of “green” — we could define interventions targeting global public goods as dark green and those focusing more on local public goods as light green. Among them, what is the right one for South Asian cities?
Practitioners and government officials from the region had intensive discussions on this question throughout a recent workshop on urbanization in Korea, organized by the World Bank in collaboration with the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements.