Greener cities are critical to regional sustainability
From megacities to metropolises, cities of all kinds are experiencing an unprecedented spectrum of threats associated with climate change, necessitating a serious debate on the importance of transitioning toward greener cities in order to remain sustainable and resilient.
Currently, those living in urban areas make up just over half the global population. But this figure is projected to increase exponentially to a whopping 68 percent by mid-century, according to the UN. The modern urban landscape poses complex challenges for cities, as they are vulnerable to climate-induced hazards that threaten their economies and infrastructures and the well-being of their residents.
An influential 2018 report titled “The Future We Don’t Want” — published by C40 Cities, the Global Covenant of Mayors, Acclimatise and the Urban Climate Change Research Network — revealed the manifold threats that cities are facing and will continue to face in greater intensity as a result of climate change. The report stated that 70 percent of cities are already feeling the wrath of climate change in the form of heat waves, rising sea levels, wildfires, storms and droughts. The fact that 90 percent of urban areas are coastal also poses a significant vulnerability to flooding due to rising sea levels and mass destruction from tsunamis.
By 2050, more than 45 percent of the global urban population is projected to live in cities with extreme summer temperatures of at least 35 degrees Celsius, leaving residents susceptible to dehydration, heatstroke, sleep loss, stress, cardiovascular disease and even death.
Many cities are currently counteracting these challenges, such as the case with Seoul, which implements a number of successful interventions when temperatures reach 33 C for two consecutive days. They include advisories to residents with practical advice and guidance to employers about allowing their outdoor workers to take breaks. The city has also installed shaded cooling centers in public locations, planted 16 million trees and expanded its green space by 3.5 million sq m.
The urgency of addressing climate change in the Middle East and North Africa has never been more critical, with UN experts projecting an urbanization rate of 59 percent by 2030. The region is already fraught with high temperatures, droughts, limited rainfall and scarce agricultural lands, and it is considered among the most water-stressed regions in the world. Climate-induced water scarcity alone is projected to cost MENA countries as much as 6 percent of their gross domestic product by 2050, according to the World Bank.
Shifting to climate-smart infrastructure is an important step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving resources.
All of these challenges have important policy implications for city governments on how to balance economic growth while reducing environmental impacts and maximizing population well-being. The International Finance Corporation estimates the climate-centered investment opportunity for the MENA region to be $1.7 trillion.
Many cities have already implemented a vast range of interventions to bolster their resilience and successfully transition into greener cities. Chief among these actions is establishing a dedicated agency to plan, coordinate and manage climate-related strategies across the country. Regular extensive assessments of vulnerabilities and climate-related risks will inform decision-makers on the urgent and critical interventions needed.
Cities should also upgrade their infrastructure to ensure resilience in the face of extreme climate events, such as the flooding of drainage systems. Shifting to climate-smart infrastructure is an important step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving resources. For example, a number of cities are currently relying on renewable energy and solar energy to power large buildings.
Meanwhile, the government of Dubai has issued regulations for “green buildings” that elaborate on a number of climate-friendly solutions, including creating vegetated rooftops, reducing hazardous waste, limiting pollution and improving energy and water efficiency. Many cities are also experimenting with vertical forests, whereby a variety of plant species are grown on buildings, such as the ones in Milan, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Utrecht.
Investing in climate-efficient public transportation and promoting the uptake of hybrid or electric vehicles will offer cleaner alternatives to fuel-reliant vehicles that amplify air pollution. To illustrate, the city of Santiago in Chile invested in electric-powered public buses, which do not generate emissions and cost a remarkable 70 percent less to operate than diesel-fueled buses. In tandem, guidance should be issued to enterprises on how to decarbonize their operations and shift toward electrification and digital solutions.
Launching mass greening and reforestation projects across cities can yield a number of benefits, such as cooling them during summer months and improving biodiversity. This can be done by planting trees to line streets and boulevards and creating gardens, grassy areas, public parks, flowery meadows, miniature urban forests and allotments. For instance, many cities offer allotments for urban farming and recreational gardening projects managed by residents, with an abundance of evidence pointing to improved physical and mental well-being, in addition to the growth of local, seasonal and organic produce.
Additionally, many countries, such as the UAE and Singapore, are capitalizing on vertical farming projects to maximize agricultural yield while relying on climate-friendly solutions to efficiently utilize water and energy.
City governments should also be creative with their public education campaigns to nudge the desired behavioral changes by residents, focusing on recycling, metered consumption and the reduction of wastage. Furthermore, MENA countries should invest in cutting-edge research and innovations related to climate change, which will empower cities to navigate an uncertain future and adjust their climate action plans accordingly.
When imagining the cities of tomorrow, a rather ambitious idea should be explored to include sustainability. By transforming its cities into greener cities, the MENA region can navigate the coming decades with enhanced resilience and competitiveness.
• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.