Cities key drivers of ecological transition

Both the climate crisis and biodiversity loss have dramatic consequences, not just for future generations but also for us. Under pressure from lobbyists many governments are failing us. But cities are taking over and building sustainable societies with social cohesion and economic justice.
Published in Sustainability
Cities key drivers of ecological transition

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There has been a dramatic opening to this decade: mega-fires in Australia obliterating almost three billion animals swiftly followed by a zoonotic (transmitted from animal to human) pandemic paralysing the whole world. These events are so distinct they seem disconnected. In fact, they are just different manifestations of the same issue: multiple Earth System disruptions.

Excessive emissions of greenhouse gases have triggered global heating and permafrost thawing. This is damaging the Earth’s global climate system, causing the climate crisis. Consequences include rising sea levels, which threatens islands and coastal cities. In addition, we have hotter and drier conditions that fuel more frequent and stronger mega-fires, like those seen in Siberia in 2019, where a territory larger than Wales was burnt, or this year in Australia, where an area almost the size of England was destroyed.

What about the health crisis? The emergence of zoonotic diseases like AIDS, Zika or Covid-19 has been growing since the 1960s. While three centuries ago we were only using 5% of the planet’s land, now more than 50% has been taken over by humans for industrial farming, urbanisation, and deforestation.

By degrading the biosphere and encroaching on the territories of animals like bats, which are asymptotic carriers of super viruses, we increase the likelihood of cross-species contamination and spillover. Moreover, global travel gives pathogens a springboard to potentially go viral all over the globe.

With both events, we overstepped planetary boundaries causing an avalanche of Earth System disruptions. Unless we radically address the root cause, which is our unsustainable societies, similar catastrophes will occur again and again, getting stronger each time. We will also witness other disastrous events like extreme weather episodes such as cyclones, food crises, and the social, humanitarian and economic meltdown that will follow.

The solution is building sustainable societies

Given the complexity of the issues, this solution is systemic, embracing environmental, social, economic and political actions. Sustainable development has been on the table since 1987, when the Brundtland Report, entitled “Our Common Future”, was published. Later, in 2015, a more detailed plan was formed with the creation of 17 specific sustainable development goals (SDG) aimed at individuals, families, communities, corporations, and national and global ruling bodies. The Paris Agreement was signed by 197 countries although currently only seven are on track to meet the targets. As an example, air pollution is estimated to have killed 8.8 million in 2015, while Governments’ subsidies of fossil fuels exceeded 5 trillion USD in 2017.

Sustainability is most efficient at city level

Due to governments lack of progress, some parts of society are implementing sustainable development and a circular economy. Many regions and cities, as well as preparing for a rise in the urban population, are also embracing ecological transitions that will move them towards a sustainable world. Cities are of high strategic importance, and thanks to their multi-faceted role as a consumer, provider, regulator and coordinator, they can act to drive radical transformation. While these issues are global, solutions can best be applied at city level.

Many municipalities with strong governance are experimenting with new methods and processes with the collaboration and inclusion of all stakeholders, from private and public sectors, start-ups, civil society, academia, investors and policy makers. To ensure a town is durable and its inhabitants are safe, it must anticipate and adapt by making resilience a core part of its strategy and strengthen the vital infrastructure around it. Urban agriculture and short supply chains allow self-sufficiency, while smart town planning is essential to cleverly maximise living, shopping and working spaces, creating more compact towns that facilitate walking and cycling.

With the current health crisis, businesses’ digital transformations have been accelerated to accommodate working from home, reducing the carbon footprint. This is an opportunity to rethink working habits and environments to bring colleagues and collaborators together safely and sustainably. Inclusive and collaborative communities are more resilient. By using a “backcasting” planning method, which envisages a compelling vision of the future and then works back to work out how to achieve it, many “urban labs” are springing up, leading to innovation in construction, transport, energy, water and waste management. Many social schemes and initiatives are also being tested in real time and in real places, like fair sharing economies, which seem to be thriving.

Enhancing biodiversity, well-being, and health

The most pioneering enterprise by far is nature, which has been designing ingenious products and processes for more than 3.4 billion years. Nature-based solutions are powerful, cost-effective and environmentally extremely valuable as they preserve ecosystems, reduce ecological footprints while building resilience. Examples include soft-engineering solutions like Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems, which allow water to be incorporated in the design of the city, restoring the hydraulic cycle and local ecosystems. A common example is green walls that insulate, temper heatwaves, reduce air and noise pollution, enhance biodiversity while improving people’s well-being and mood.

Working towards carbon negativity

Other nature-based solutions are based on biomimicry which offers endless potential, including in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. While CO2 is often depicted as negative, carbon is a vital element and is used by nature as a building block. A Californian company, Blue Planet, has been biomimicking coral to create carbon-negative cement. With cities being energy-greedy entities contributing to 70% of global greenhouse gases emissions, it is not just about revamping the power infrastructure with renewable energy and achieving carbon neutrality. We must aim for carbon negativity by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Jumping on the sustainability pathway

Even with these many inspiring actions to reduce pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases, the reality is the effects will not be seen immediately as geological time is much slower than human time. Earth System processes have high inertia and there is a lag before we witness a reversal of the curve. Hence it is important to act now. The longer we wait to tackle these challenges, the more painful it will be.

Many communities know this and thousands of cities from all around the world are jumping on the sustainability pathway, removing obstacles thanks to agile planning, endless inventiveness, genuine partnerships, and a shared enthusiastic vision of our common world.

With unwavering awareness, inspirational Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship (ESDGC) and a sound scientific understanding of our planet, more participants are joining in, including enterprises incorporating circularity at the core of their business models, or the banking and investment sector considering non-financial indicators like Environment, Social and Governance (ESG). WWF is estimating that approximately 350 trillion US dollars will be invested in urban infrastructure over the next three decades. The Green Deal requires huge investment proportionate to the size of this unprecedented challenge. The beneficiaries are every single human being along with every other living organism, from the giant blue whales to tiny bacteria.

A unique opportunity and the best deal ever

It is not only about repairing fractured ecosystems. This is a unique opportunity to get the Anthroposphere working in harmony with the other Earth System’s spheres while shaping a stable, resilient world where we can all thrive. Too often sustainability is depicted as being at odds with economic growth. This is not true: there is no trade-off between the two. Implementing sustainability helps generate economic prosperity while building inclusive, healthy, and happy societies.

Sources and further reading list


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