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Unleashing sustainable cities

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Making cities better is a matter of opportunity and survival.

By Fernanda Matsuoka, YCL's Logistic Director.

Throughout history, cities have been the model organisation to gather people and resources, create institutions such as governments and universities, that allowed us to increase our knowledge organise ourselves to drive humankind to a bold future.

On the 21st century, after centuries of struggles and wars, we have access to modern technology, health, peace, science, and human rights. In a nutshell, we have all the conditions to be on the most efficient, abundant, peaceful and collaborative time in our history. But instead of taking the next step to this reality, Cities are being managed to put ourselves in risk.

Of course, humankind progressed during the 20th century by reducing extreme poverty and child mortality if compared to the previous centuries. But we still face the hard reality where over 800 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment and live on slums, that is not due to the lack of food, but due to the political and economic factors that allow this to happen. Something is wrong in how we look to cities.

The lack of city planning and governance around the world could be one of the leading causes of the climate crisis. Some figures from the latest report of UN-Habitat are impressive: our cities produce more than 70% of global CO2 emissions! This clear evidence that the need to urgently improve cities if we want to mitigate climate change.

The latest IPCC report presented a stark message to the world: clear scientific evidence of climate impact will deepen if we do not take drastic changes to reduce carbon emissions in the next 12 years. If not, we will reach the limits in our ability to adapt to climate change, and the entire humanity will be at risk. Even, the wealthiest and most advanced cities may not be able to survive the water and food scarcity that will come with the process.

As part of goal #11 of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), we have to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable before 2030. Implementing this will require unprecedented collaborative efforts between countries, citizens, cities, regional governments, and enterprises. Can we do this before 2030? And if so, how can we this be done?

Rutger Bregman mentioned in his recent book “Utopia for Realists (2017)” that we need to relearn how to think utopian, and I agree with him on this. Making cities sustainable looks unrealistic, but we need to unleash this idea by discussing concrete ways to make this a reality. Bregman develops in his book how concepts such as universal basic income can become a reality, why it is beneficial, viable and necessary. We have to do the same when planning our cities.

Many may believe that we need to choose the battles: we can either stimulate the economy or make the green transition. Either combat poverty or create jobs. But it’s not the case. We do not have to choose to improve people’s lives or save the planet since the solution for both is the same. If we fix cities, we can reduce our carbon emissions and have economic, social and environmental growth.

Take air pollution as an example, that currently kills 4,2 million people every year and is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. One of the main reasons for air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, that also happens to be the leading cause of the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Decarbonising cities can significantly improve the quality of the air we breathe, therefore our health and life quality, but will also help us stopping the growth temperature on the planet. Shifting to green energy will also bring job opportunities, make energy safer and cheaper, making the macroeconomic benefits even broader.

A remarkable example of our times that represent the effort of improving cities and tackle climate change together and is the Green New Deal. This ambitious government plan that wants to decarbonise the US, and at the same time propose universal health care and education for all, as proposed in the Paris Agreement.

The new green deal as a massive example, and of course we need big moves such as this. But we also need millions of actions on a local scale. Don’t underestimate the power you have in your network and community to tackle climate change. Do not hesitate to improve your house, your neighbourhood, your school, your workplace. We need everybody engaged in unleashing the utopia of a decarbonised and equal society.

The climate change crisis is by far the biggest challenge we have ever faced. But it is also the opportunity to move humankind to the 21st century finally: a decarbonised society, settled for the future generations to have a prosperous and inclusive future, where no one is left behind.

We may think that climate change is a threat, but the real threat against humankind is our lack of action. There is no time for delay; our chance to enable Sustainable Cities starts now.

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