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The New Urban Agenda: an opportunity for cities and nations

From Seberang Perai, Malaysia to Seoul, South Korea, sustainable cities have unique assets. They are home to visionary leaders, skilled staff and active members of civil society – each an equal driver in defining and achieving local sustainability goals. They are also major political and economic centers with the potential to foster innovation and creative solutions.

Cities also face significant challenges. Home to over half of the global population, cities continue to attract people at significant rates and need to take bold steps to curb the negative effects of this growth.

We can expect that over two-thirds of the global urban population will live in cities by 2050. Today North America, Latin America and Europe are the most urbanized regions. However, Africa and Asia are urbanizing more rapidly than any other areas and are home to megacities such as Tokyo with 38 million inhabitants, Delhi with 25 million and Shanghai with 23 million.  Even today, cities are intensive consumers of 75% of all natural resources. They produce 50% of global waste and account for 37 to 49% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is that cities are already taking steps that will make urbanization more sustainable in the short and long term. The City of Seberang Perai, for instance, has established a comprehensive strategy to reduce solid waste in the city by actively engaging citizens and encouraging them to rethink their patterns of consumption. The result is a cleaner city that has decreased its solid waste expenditures from 42 to 32% so far.

Meanwhile, the City of Seoul has adopted very ambitious energy policies. Their One Less Nuclear Power Plant project aims to reduce the electricity, gas and oil consumption while working towards greater energy self-reliance.  Through this project, Seoul aims to avoid 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which amounts to 1 ton per city resident.

Such examples are inspiring. They remind us that bold action is possible, and that many cities are already well on their way towards a more sustainable future. Yet not all cities are equipped with the resources and tools to turn their vision into reality – and even our largest cities reach the limits of their capacity and resources at some point in time. Furthermore, with the population in cities quickly growing, existing challenges will only become more complex.

Sometimes the roadblocks relate to capacity and sheer human capital needed to implement transformative projects. At other times, it is access to financial capital that gets in the way. In the context of the ICLEI-run Transformative Action Program (TAP), there are just over 120 local climate projects that need $US 9 billion for implementation. Implementing these ambitions would not only require these substantial investments but would also require more human capabilities and more centralized information on financial resources that are available.

Strong national policies can play a pivotal role in eliminating these hurdles. It takes a million steps for cities to realize their vision of sustainability, and while they can accomplish a lot, they cannot stand alone.  

Guided by a strong New Urban Agenda coming out of Habitat III, national governments have an opportunity to help cities manage urbanization in an effective and sustainable way. This requires thoughtful and effectively crafted strategies for sustainable development, good governance and tracking progress that reflect the dynamism of urbanization.

With such support, cities can build and capitalize on their unique assets that bring about sustainable change.

Right now, we await the outcomes of Habitat III this October. If the New Urban Agenda is strong and ambitious, cities and nations together can dive right into implementation. If not, then local and subnational governments must once again  take the lead in globalizing their ambitious action,  demonstrating their contributions toward the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Agreements and fora supported by innovative solutions for vertical integration customized for each and every nation.

Cities empowered to take bold action can mean that the world becomes full of sustainable cities that achieve and go beyond zero waste, are free from fossil fuels and build themselves as centers for sustainable innovation of all kinds.

Read the related Citiscope article by the Secretary General of ICLEI.

For more information:

Visit ICLEI Habitat III webpage

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Find here our current briefing on Habitat III (as of 30 August 2016). It includes an overview of Habitat III official events and ICLEI events as well as updates on the negotiations and practical information.