From left to right, Martha Delgado, Undersecretary of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maimunah Sharif, Executive Director UN Habitat, Shipra Narang Suri, Coordinator, Urban Planning and Design Branch at UN-Habitat.
It’s not every day, as mayor of a small city – in the global scheme of things – to have an opportunity to speak at the United Nations. I was honoured to participate and to share the climate action we’re taking in Victoria. What’s more important is what I learned: climate change can’t be solved and 21st century prosperity won’t be created unless nations put cities at the heart of their climate agendas. This matters to Canadian cities in the middle of an election campaign where climate change is taking centre stage.
I got to attend the release of a ground-breaking report, Climate Emergency: Urban Opportunity. It lays out a clear path for how national governments can secure economic prosperity and avert climate catastrophe by transforming cities. It points out that only two in five countries have a climate strategy that explicitly involves cities. Canada does not.
Every week, somewhere in the world, a city the size of Paris is being built. In Asia and Africa, 2.5 billion more people will live in cities in 2050 than they do now. In Kenya, for example, 15 million people live in cities. By 2050, 44 million Kenyans will live in cities. Seventy-five percent of the infrastructure that will be needed to accommodate this urban growth has not yet been built.
And where do these materials for city building come from? I met Governor and Mayor Powes Parkop of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital city. Papua New Guinea is the first country to have environmental refugees. They also have the third largest tropical forest in the world which houses 10 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Their forest is currently being harvested to export for city building needs in first world countries. Scott Francisco from Cities4Forests, shared in his remarks on a panel on Nature Based Solutions that New York consumes 50,000 hectares of forest per year.
Add to this the portion of people globally living in informal settlements or slums on the fringes of cities. Sheela Patel, Chairperson of Slum Dwellers International, told us that for people living in poverty – whether in the slums of Rio de Janeiro or on Pandora Street in Victoria – if you go and talk about climate change, they will say, we need food and shelter. How do we care about climate change when there is so much inequality?
Without climate action that puts sustainable city building at the centre, there will be an increase in urban populations and an increase in urban poverty, a decrease in biodiversity and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions exacerbating the earth’s growing fragility.
The Climate Emergency: Urban Opportunity report addresses all of these issues and outlines a path forward to addressing climate change, inequality and sustainable development all at the same time. It shows that sustainable cities provide a powerful opportunity to reduce poverty, reduce climate risk, and increase economic opportunity.
The report, authored by Lord Nicholas Stern from the London School of Economics, and a host of others from the 50 organizations that make up the Coalition for Urban Transitions makes six key recommendations:
- Develop an overarching strategy to deliver shared prosperity while reaching net-zero emissions – and place cities at its heart.
- Align national policies behind compact, connected, clean cities.
- Fund and finance sustainable urban infrastructure.
- Coordinate and support local climate action in cities.
- Build a multilateral system that fosters inclusive, zero-carbon cities.
- Proactively plan for a just urban transition.
Stern said at the launch that if we take the recommendations laid out here, we will have prosperity and resilience. If we don’t then we will have fragility and uncertainty. And he emphasized that, “We’re not going to get to zero by 2050 unless cities take the lead. Getting there is the inclusive growth story of the 21st century. The pathway will create great cities and great places to live.”
The report demonstrates that if – as cities and national governments – we follow the recommendations, there’s a $24 trillion dollar economic opportunity and the potential to create 87 million jobs globally by 2030. It will take investing roughly 2% of global GDP to get there; the return on investment will be three to four times that. Importantly, for those of us ready to act now, the report demonstrates that 90% of emissions can be reduced with technologies that already exist.
Martha Delgado, Undersecretary of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and president of the UN Habitat Assembly echoed the findings of the report. She said that, “you don’t adapt a country to climate change, you adapt communities to climate change.” She gave city leaders four key pieces of advice:
- Identify successful projects that can be replicated, city after city.
- Maximize the impact of your existing efforts.
- Allocate your resources wisely to projects that will have the greatest positive effects for climate action, resilience and community building.
- Motivate citizens to increase climate action.
But cities can’t do this alone. “Even the largest and most empowered city governments can deliver only a small share of mitigation potential on their own,” the report reads. “Governments of small and medium-sized cities, which are home to over half the global urban population and half the urban mitigation potential, have even less power and fewer resources to reduce emissions or enhance resilience.” Victoria fits into this category. For us, and other cities like us around the globe, “the support provided and standards established by national and state governments are particularly important.”
The role of cities and the relationship between cities and the federal government has received little to no coverage during this federal election campaign and doesn’t explicitly appear in the platforms of any of the parties. If Canada wants to continue along a path of prosperity, reduce inequality and seriously address our emissions, then cities and communities will need to be at heart of the government’s agenda.
To this end, the new government should consider appointing a Minister of Climate Change and Communities with a mandate of implementing a just transition for communities and workers in the resource sector and implementing the Climate Emergency: Urban Opportunity recommendations in urban areas. This will help to put Canada on the path to low-carbon prosperity that at least three parties have committed to and that the current climate emergency demands.