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Sustainability engine: Resource efficient and resilient cities

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 09:23

Cities are where most of the consumption and production happen today. With growing urbanisation, Dr. Arab Hoballah, UNEP Chief of Sustainable Lifestyles, Cities and Industry says the importance of city-level actions will be reinforced, making cities primary players to deliver sustainable solutions in the production of goods and enable responsible consumer choices

Most policy and decision makers, public and private, as well as citizens, are increasingly aware of the importance of cities for economic growth and sustainable development. Generally perceived as sources of problems, cities can be where solutions will come from.

At times of increasing shocks and stresses, not least due to climate change and natural resource constraints, it is imperative to adopt a system’s perspective and be innovative so as to change our current unsustainable consumption and production patterns, and inefficient management of the planet’s limited resources. This will require a fundamental “structural” change in the way of designing and implementing policies, aiming at smart, low-carbon, resource efficient and resilient investments and actions, to reduce economic, social and environmental risk for the natural and built infrastructure assets. In this context, urban infrastructures must take into account the long-term flows of strategic resources, which require linking urban systems to the wider regional flow of ecosystem services and natural resource extraction.

The global community has increasingly realised the importance of and necessity for changing our unsustainable consumption and production patterns if to eradicate poverty and deliver sustainable development. This has resulted in the adoption at Rio+20 of the 10 Year Framework of Programmes for Sustainable Consumption and Production/SCP, and the inclusion in the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals/SDGs of SDG 11 and SDG 12 on Cities and SCP together with related targets in most of the other goals, showing their cross-cutting nature in support of the sustainable development.

Cities are where most of the consumption and production happen today; with growing urbanisation, the importance of city-level actions will be reinforced, making cities primary players to deliver sustainable solutions in the production of goods and enable responsible consumer choices. Delivering SCP through city-level action starts with buildings, the low hanging fruit for energy efficiency and reduction of CO2 emissions. Besides buildings, it is critical for government and local authorities to consider the flow of resources that constitute the metabolism of a city in relation with its population and consumption needs. Cities are complex networks of interlocked infrastructures that bring resources in, use the resources to provide services, generate wealth, and dispose of the waste that is generated by consumption.

More circular urban metabolism that treats outputs from one as inputs to another would help cities decouple resource use from the provision of better services, economic opportunities and environmental impacts. Analysis of material flows can help set priorities and inform policies and measures. Establishing targets for desired resource flows per capita based on the economic and ecological context of any given city can provide a coherent framework for assessing progress towards more sustainable resource use. Targets for water, energy consumption, and carbon emissions are being used in some cities already.

Many of the problems that are attributed to cities are consequences of economic growth and consumer behaviour. In this context, it is particularly important to take into consideration the growing global middle class who are not only expected to live longer due to improvements in health care but are also characterized by their increased purchasing capacity. With the expected additional middle class of about 3 billion in some 30 years, the cities can be characterized as the “industries of the three-quarters” in the sense that, as an order of magnitude, cities will host about three quarters, between 70% and 90% depending on sector and region, of the population, the GDP, resources use, waste production and CO2 emissions. This is to say that there could be no sustainability if not at city level and with resource efficient cities with the aim to deliver sustainable consumption and production.

However this requires knowledge about and understanding of resource flows to and within cities. Considering the huge pressures cities will be facing from a resource supply and demand perspective, there is a need to support cities and their networks in better identifying and realising the economic, social and environmental benefits of resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production. And this will result in improved resilience of cities and thereon of countries from resulting climate mitigation actions.

Ultimately, resource efficient cities combine greater productivity and innovation with lower costs and reduced environmental impacts, making them the engines to sustainability.

To that end, it is essential that all countries, starting with leading economies such as the EU countries and those under G20, get engaged more pro-actively in an objective and responsible low carbon agenda, bringing government, central and local, together with business in a long term strategic alliance with the aim at delivering the badly needed transformative change in policy frameworks and actions, in market evolution and lifestyles, towards responsible and sustainable consumption and production patterns for delivering sustainability.

And it is in this same spirit that the COP21 Paris Agreement has highlighted that sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production, with developed countries taking the lead, play an important role in addressing climate change. The New Urban Agenda, prepared through the ongoing Habitat III process, should provide an opportunity to focus on vertical and horizontal integration and the implementation of the SDGs at the city level. Promoting resource efficiency at city level will increase their economic resilience, contribute to climate mitigation, reduce waste and associated costs, while also improving quality of life.

Finally, as long as the global community, with the EU taking the lead, does not reverse the current situation of subsidies for unsustainable consumption and production patterns, characterised by use of fossil energy sources and unsustainable food systems, and induce adequate supporting measures and incentives for promoting resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production, as long as detoxifying, decoupling and decarbonising economic development, sustainable development will remain a “wishful thinking”