Cities, sustainable development and climate goals

arturo-100x100by Arturo Mendoza

Nowadays, in order to properly understand policy cycles, we need to assess the plurality of actors that shape and implement public policies. The actions and omissions of multiple stakeholders -including national governments, local authorities, indigenous communities, civil society organisations, among many other actors- could determine the success, or failure, of policies and social programmes.

We’ve passed the point –or this is what many people actually believe- when top-down decisions were made to face global challenges. Today, a call from ‘Mr. President’ would not do to dismantle networks of corruption or the operations of organised crime, right? This type of ‘trickle-down’ policies, to put it in a fancy way, fail to catch all the interests and concerns of the actors that could be affected if these policies go wrong. In this context, sustainable development and international climate goals don’t escape from contemporary cross-sectorial dynamics.

I’m convinced that in the 21st Century, with all the hurricanes, floods and many other natural disasters that we’ve shockingly witnessed around the world, only a few people –U.S. presidential candidate Donald J. Trump among them- could possibly deny the catastrophic consequences of global warming.

Through multilateral forums and conferences, world leaders, scientists, representatives of NGO’s and mayors of the biggest cities in the world have pointed out the importance of curbing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions immediately by implementing national action plans to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change. The nationally determined contributions –to reduce GHG emissions- and the progress tracker, which are the foundations of the historic binding agreement that was reached by 197 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last year in Paris, illustrate that this is a matter of survival and the top priority of many policy actors.

It is a fact that if we fail to change our production and consumption habits, the excess of noxious gases in the atmosphere will affect weather conditions and will continue to damage the environment. Furthermore, and probably selfishly thought (if this is the only way to see reason), the absence of immediate action toward global warming could also lead to self-inflicted harm to our health and living conditions.

Now then, living in one of the biggest -and highly polluted- developing cities in the world, I honestly understand the predicament of global mayors that have to foster the economy, whilst implementing environmentally friendly policies. According to the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), urban centres are responsible for more than 60% of global CO₂ emissions. Moreover, cities also consume 78% of global energy and its populations are expected to double by 2050. In few words, the correlation between urbanization, development and climate change is strong and honestly alarming.

In general, I agree we must keep the progress of the Paris Agreement in the loop. Just for the record, as by now, only 23 Parties -accounting for 1.08% of global GHG emissions- have ratified the treaty. However, it’s also important to consider that, to work toward more ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ cities, local authorities and the residents of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide need to take ‘urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.’ Only this way, policy actors could possibly stay true to the seventeen goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDG).

The ambitioned accomplishment of these long-term goals is just one of the many reasons why the multilateral dialogue and the exchange of the best practices on sustainable development and clean energy between cities are important. In the upcoming months, the global action plan to propel sustainable urban development will be defined.

In this regard, the preparatory sessions that have taken place in Habitat III, convened by the UN General Assembly, and the C40 Summit in Mexico City –with the participation of 86 affiliated cities that represent the 25% of global GDP- will shape the New Urban Agenda to be adopted in Quito. By means of a ‘people-centred’ approach, this agenda will set the standards of cross-sectorial dynamics to promote ‘sustainable and inclusive urban economies’ and ‘environmental sustainability.’

The fight against climate change faces a defining moment. Today, we talk about itchy eyes, allergies, and asthma, but tomorrow we might not be talking about anything at all. All policy actors –you and me- should take their share of responsibility and build more sustainable settlements and communities.

Oh! Are you seriously staring at me, surprised and speechless? Let’s be honest. Did you use public transportation today? Have you properly recycled your rubbish for the weekend? Have you asked to your local authority about the policies that are being implemented to reduce GHG emissions or to recover public spaces? Then, we both know there are still many things we can actually do.

Sub-national political actors will have to show some good will and take this endeavour seriously by genuinely committing to international agreements and assisting developing cities that don’t have the resources to fully accomplish the SDG. Nonetheless, we the citizens of this ill planet should be in charge of monitoring the progress of nationally determined contributions. Moreover, epistemic communities or interest groups must oversee the transparency and implementation of technically-wise projects.

Trust me, you wouldn’t like to end up with high-cost projects and lower environmental benefits to those that could have been reached by choosing a different strategy. This was the case of Mexico City’s fancy 300 million pesos vertical gardens that are being installed in one of the city’s largest avenues. According to environmental experts and activists, 1m² of vertical garden absorbs 2.33kg of CO₂ a year, whilst one oak absorbs 22kg. Additionally, one oak only costs the 15% of 1m² of vertical garden. So, please tell me: wasn’t this a bad decision? Probably, yes. However, it demonstrates how important is our participation in order to define the projects that will transform our cities into more sustainable human settlements. This time, I’m talking to the leading C-7.40 million group of world’s population. Let’s work for a ‘people-centred’ approach to climate change. Let’s do it today!



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