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Earth Day 2016: In a rapidly urbanizing world, cities hold the key to a greener future

Kevin Taylor's picture
Photo: Mricon/Flickr
This Earth Day, we have good reason to celebrate. It’s been a year that saw historic commitments along the path of our collective response to climate change and how we will live on the planet in this century.
 
In September, global leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals and are now working to put them into force to end poverty, while also combating climate change and ensuring that our future is prosperous for all people.
 
The Paris Agreement reached at COP 21 last December represents our best foot forward toward cutting carbon pollution and building resilience to the climate threats we face. And that momentum continues this week, as leaders from around the world gather in New York City to formally sign the Agreement to turn those promises into action.
 
Increasingly, that future will be more urbanized than ever before. 6 out of 10 people on the planet will live in cities by 2030. However, more than 820 million people live in slums and this number, sadly, is increasing. Fortunately, more and more local leaders are stepping up efforts to make cities more efficient, inclusive, resilient, and productive to address the global challenges of climate change, poverty, and inequality.
 
This year, we can celebrate another global commitment in the launch of the Compact of Mayors. Nearly 500 mayors and local officials have signed the Compact to mark their pledge to tackle climate change. Most of these leaders were in Paris for COP 21 to call on nations to follow their example.
 
It is critical to seize this momentum to turn the promise of the Paris Agreement, SDGs, and Compact of Mayors into reality. For climate change, we need to significantly reduce CO2 emissions as soon as possible, as the window for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change is rapidly closing.

Learning to leverage climate action in cities

Abha Joshi-Ghani's picture
All climate action is ultimately local. At the center of this is city leadership and engaged citizens. It is estimated that cities are responsible for 2/3 of global energy consumption and produce 80 % of the world’s GDP. Density creates the possibility of doing more with less, and with a smaller carbon footprint. While urban areas are responsible for more than 70 % of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, it is cities that can make a difference by effectively tackling climate change. We often find that cities lead the way on climate action against the inertia of national governments.
 
We already see a large number of cities taking the lead in sustainability through innovative financing mechanisms, technological advances, policy and regulatory reforms, efficient use of land and transport, waste reduction, energy efficiency measures, and reduction of GHG emissions.
 
What is needed now for scaling this up is systematic knowledge exchange and learning among cities. Peer-to-peer learning is a powerful tool once contextualized and adapted to the particular socio-economic and political context. Iterative learning with feedback loops can help in finding transformative solutions.

A new platform to put cities at the core of sustainable development

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
Urban areas will play a critical role in achieving sustainable development and combating climate change. Many cities have already taken bold steps to reduce their environmental footprint, and have often been able to do so much more quickly and pro-actively than their national governments.
 
Based on the premise that greener cities are the key to a more sustainable future, the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility launched the new Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) earlier this month in Singapore. The new platform will help mobilize funding for urban sustainability programs, while also facilitating knowledge exchange between cities.
 
Thanks to this innovative approach that closely connects finance to knowledge, the GPSC will be uniquely positioned to make cities the driving force of sustainable development.

Want to build sustainable, resilient cities? Start with quality infrastructure

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
Rapid urbanization has put considerable pressure on developing countries to deliver more infrastructure - and, preferably, to deliver it fast and in a cost-effective way. But this sense of urgency should not lead cities to compromise on quality, or to focus only on the upfront cost of building infrastructure rather than to consider the full cost of construction, operation and maintenance over the entire lifecycle of a project.
 
To discuss some of the key infrastructure challenges faced by its client countries, the World Bank recently hosted its first International Conference on "Sustainable Development through Quality Infrastructure” in Tokyo, Japan. But what exactly do we mean by "quality infrastructure", and what role can it play in creating resilient, sustainable cities?

Cities: the best place to strive for sustainability

Xiaomei Tan's picture

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Cities are a puzzle for some and inspiration for others. As engines of economic growth, they are also hubs of rapid urbanization, a rising middle class, and a growing population. These three mega-trends drive global environmental degradation yet are only part of the important challenge facing cities today.

While consuming over two-thirds of global energy supply and emitting 70% of all carbon dioxide, cities are also uniquely vulnerable to climate change. Fourteen of the world’s 19 largest cities are located in port areas. With sea level rise and increased storm activity, these areas are likely to face coastal flooding, damage to infrastructure, and compromised water and food security. Under these conditions, meeting urban population’s growing production and consumption needs for food, energy, water, and infrastructure will overload rural and urban ecosystems.

To tackle these issues, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), in collaboration with the World Bank Group (WBG), launched the Sustainable Cities Program to engage 23 cities in 11 developing countries. Hailing from one of such countries, two urban development specialists working on each side of the Program explain why making cities more sustainable appeals to them.

Geothermal Energy

Jessica Stewart's picture

For years, the thermal energy beneath the surface of the Earth has been used for many things. Bathing, agriculture, aquaculture, industrial or heating purposes, or even to generate power; the results are often impressive. The Earth’s structure radiates a constant flow of thermal energy outwards to the crust. This phenomenon is a natural, renewable source of heat which provides a substantial contribution to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Frick and Fracking

Chelsea Martin's picture

Fracking in New South Wales

New fracking practices have increased the availability and decreased the cost of natural gas. This is having an enormous impact on energy systems around the world. There are numerous potential applications for natural gas including, but not limited to, use for transportation fuel, residential use, and electricity generation. Since the economic potential of exploiting this resource is so large it is likely that Canada, along with the US, will continue to ‘frack it all’ and reap the economic benefits on the global market. Other countries like China are joining in as well.

The largest increase in use of natural gas is for electricity generation. Natural gas fired power plants are appealing for many reasons. They can supply reliable base-load as well as peaking power. Also, they can be planned and built in less time than say, nuclear power stations, and for lower capital cost. Since fuel is available and cheap, natural gas power plants will continue to be built, and existing plants will continue to operate.

District Energy – A Smart Option for Cities

Robert Reipas's picture

Let’s talk recycling: Not plastic and paper, but power…

Combined Heat and Power SystemThese days, by far, the majority of electricity used in high-income countries comes from thermal power plants; these operate by heating water into steam that then spins a turbine. Thermal power plants, however, typically only use 33% to 48% of the total heat they produce. The rest just gets released into water or air. It’s a shame; if only there was a way to recycle all that ‘low-grade’ heat.

Today, 37% of the energy demand in OECD countries is for heating of buildings; only about 21% of energy demand is for electricity. We use much more energy for heating and cooling than we do for electricity.  The low-grade heat that gets wasted by most power plants is still hot enough to be used for heating (and cooling) and water heating in buildings.

Why do we use so little of the heat we produce? That’s like buying a tub of fried chicken just to eat the skins!

A Fourth ‘R’ ?

Kevin Wagner's picture

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’?

Urban Careers and the Twenty-Ninth Day

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Lily pads on lakeA helpful way for young math students to grasp the concept of exponential growth is to look at water lilies growing on a pond. They grow exponentially and double in area each day. If they will fully cover the pond by the 30th day, on what day is the lake half covered? The twenty-ninth day[1].
 
This year I had the honor of teaching 4th year energy systems students who will graduate later this month (their blogs on energy issues will be presented on this site over the summer). These graduates are particularly essential. During their careers they will be part of the world’s largest ever city-building spree. Their task will be to again double the world’s cities.

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