Climate emergency, urban opportunity

17 October 2019 | Story Ambre Nicolson. Photo Steve Buissinne, Pixabay Read time 6 min.
The world's cities are responsible for 75% of energy-related emissions, but they have the potential to contribute substantially to greenhouse gas reductions.
The world's cities are responsible for 75% of energy-related emissions, but they have the potential to contribute substantially to greenhouse gas reductions.

What role can cities play in creating economic opportunities in the context of climate change? This question, highlighted by the Coalition for Urban Transitions’ recent global report “Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity”, is one that researchers at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) African Centre for Cities (ACC) seek to answer through country-specific research in Tanzania and Ghana.

Our global response to climate change will largely be played out in the planet’s urban spaces.

  • The world’s cities are responsible for 80% of the global gross domestic product (GDP) and 75% of energy-related emissions.
  • By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will be urban.
  • Urban sectors have the potential to contribute 58% of the global energy-related greenhouse gas reductions required to keep global warming to a two-degree temperature rise.
  • This would require new investment of 2% of global GDP per year, which would yield annual returns of USD2.8 trillion per year by 2030.

These were the findings of the Coalition for Urban Transitions (CUT) report launched at the recent Climate Action Summit held at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

 

“Not only are the benefits of limiting warming worth it, but unlocking the role of cities in limiting warming would generate net profits, economic growth and employment.”

“Before the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, a number of globally renowned economists and sustainable growth specialists got together and created the New Climate Economy,” says Anton Cartwright, an economist with a special interest in the green economy who is based at the ACC and has been involved with the CUT since its inception. “The CUT was borne out of this as a special initiative.

“Not long after this, they commissioned the ACC to write a report on how unlocking the power of cities can reduce the risk of climate change while creating economic and social opportunities.”

According to Cartwright, the CUT report reiterates an important point: restricting global warming to the liveable threshold of 1.5 °C is probably not possible, and will certainly be much more expensive, unless cities are enabled to cut greenhouse gas emissions and cope better with climate-related disasters.

“Not only are the benefits of limiting warming worth it, but unlocking the role of cities in limiting warming would generate net profits, economic growth and employment,” he explains.

A country-by-country approach

While Cartwright agrees that national governments must do more to enable cities to play their part in meeting the challenges of climate change, he is also quick to explain that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

“In the African context, people often ask if the global report provides examples of cities that have ‘got it right’; examples that can be emulated.

“The Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity report is laced with examples, but to look for a blueprint would be to ignore the importance of country-specific context. It would be a misread of this piece of work.

“The specifics of the relationship between cities and central government, energy opportunities and needs, and urbanisation differ considerably across African countries.”

 

“Urbanisation has the potential to be a powerful enabler of cost-effective service delivery, structural reform of the economy, and sustainable development.”

In this regard, the ACC has been instrumental in partnering with research institutions in both Tanzania and Ghana. The ACC has helped to facilitate both qualitative and quantitative research in both countries, including running economic models to quantify country-level economic benefits.

“In Tanzania, we released a report titled ‘Harnessing Urbanisation for Development’ through the Tanzanian Urbanisation Laboratory. It outlines how the country’s urbanisation mega-trend could be harnessed to create low-carbon, inclusive and industrially competitive cities,” says Cartwright.

“In Tanzania, the urban population has grown by an average of 5.2% per annum over the past decade, and it is estimated that over half the population will live in urban areas by the middle of the century.

“Urbanisation has the potential to be a powerful enabler of cost-effective service delivery, structural reform of the economy, and sustainable development. This is more likely if Tanzanian cities are built in anticipation of climate change and a carbon-constrained global economy.”

The Ghanaian equivalent report will be launched in December through the Ghana Urbanisation Think Tank.

Climate-friendly development goals

Cartwright believes both projects strengthen the alliances and peer networks that the ACC seeks to build to support sustainable urbanisation on the continent.

As for the potential economic value that can be unlocked by effective urban climate change policies, Cartwright believes that it is incumbent on specific countries to craft the locally appropriate partnerships to make this happen.

“Not doing this invites a grave risk to the development progress that many African cities have made in the past decade. This is the existential leadership challenge for African governments, and fortunately for African leaders, many of the effective climate responses mentioned in the report also offer superior and more affordable development pathways.”

Read more about the “Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity” report.

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