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UNEP and partners launch Global Initiative for Resource-Efficient Cities; role of public transport

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners have launched a new initiative that aims to reduce pollution levels, improve resource efficiency and reduce infrastructure costs in cities across the world.

Up to 80% of the world population is expected to reside in cities by 2050. This second wave of urbanisation is projected to see more than 3 billion additional people living in cities in a time-span of just 80 years, primarily in Africa and Asia. In such a rapidly urbanizing world, cities are increasingly becoming the focus of international sustainability efforts.

Launched at the Rio+20 summit in Brazil, the Global Initiative for Resource-Efficient Cities is intended to work with local and national governments, the private sector and civil society groups to promote energy efficient buildings, efficient water use, sustainable waste management and other activities.

Urban areas account for 50% of all waste, generate 60-80% of all greenhouse gas emissions and consume 75% of natural resources, yet occupy only 3% of the Earth’s surface, UNEP said. However, water savings of 30%, and energy saving of up to 50% can be achieved in cities with limited investment and encouraging behavioral change, according to UNEP.

The Global Initiative for Resource-Efficient Cities plans to support sustainability efforts in cities with the following core activities:

  • Promoting research on resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production;

  • Providing access and advice for city decision-makers on technical expertise, capacity building and funding opportunities for improving resource efficiency; and

  • Creating a network for cities and organizations to exchange experiences and peer-review projects for mutual benefit.

Decoupling economic growth from unsustainable resource use and environmental impacts—especially in urban areas—underpins the transition to a low-carbon, resource efficient green economy.

The new Global Initiative for Resource Efficiency Cities aims to provide cities with a common framework for assessing environmental performance and encouraging innovative sustainability measures. In the context of rapid urbanization and growing pressures on natural resources, there is an urgent need for co-ordinated action on urban sustainability. This is essential both for preventing irreversible degradation of resources and ecosystems, and for realizing the multiple benefits of greener cities, from savings through energy-efficient buildings, or the health and climate benefits of cleaner fuels and vehicles.

—Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director

The initiative has already been backed by a broad range of international institutions, such as UN-Habitat; the World Bank; United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG); Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI); Cities Alliance; International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC); Veolia Environment Institute; Bioregional; Urban Environmental Accords Members Alliance; and International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Several cities have already come on board, including the City of Sao Paulo, Malmo, Heidelberg, Quezon City, Gwangju, with national interest having been expressed by Japan, Brazil, France and the United States.

The practical steps that cities can take towards resource efficiency are the focus of a new UNEP report. Using case studies from China, Brazil, Germany and a host of other countries, the report “Sustainable, Resource Efficient Cities in the 21st Century: Making it Happen”, highlights opportunities for city leaders to improve waste and water management, energy efficiency, urban transportation, and other key sectors.

With respect to transportation, the report notes that public transport programs have the potential to address a wide range of needs in the city that go beyond sustainability and deal with the greater issues of livability.

The potential for reducing GHGs in the transport sector is staggering, and the 2011 GER report on transport states that “(s)everal scenarios show that a green, low carbon, transport sector can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 per cent without major additional investment”. The challenges involve shifting investment towards projects that respond to the principle of “avoiding or reducing trips through integrated land-use and transport planning and enabling more localized production and consumption.” It also involves shifts towards more environmentally efficient modes of transport (e.g. public transport, non-motorized transport options) and to more environmentally efficient vehicles and fuels.

It is critical to appreciate the long-term impact of investments in sustainable urban transport systems in terms of infrastructure lock-in (due to transport mode choices, road infrastructure development and land-use change plans for cities).

In short, urban transportation generally contributes highly to the carbon footprint of cities, their fuel consumption, air pollution, congestion and noise pollution. It also contributes significantly to health disorders and fatalities. The transportation sector is therefore a popular choice for sustainability interventions, both in developed and developing countries alike. Yet transportation has other dimensions that require equal consideration alongside environmental considerations; primarily that transportation systems largely determine the level to which access, mobility and livability is realized at the city scale. Public transport systems play a large role in shaping the daily experience of the urban citizenry.

—“Sustainable, Resource Efficient Cities in the 21st Century”

Overall, the UNEP report outlines several success factors for transitioning to sustainable, resource efficient cities:

  • Integration: Cities need to move beyond merely conducting environmental impact assessments before implementing new developments. In addition to a conservation approach towards greening, the livability of cities and social equality measures should be taken into account.

  • Governance: Tackling climate change and advancing urban sustainability requires an integrated, consultative approach involving local communities and civil society groups, as well traditional decision-makers.

  • Smart Urban Design: Supporting low-footprint design that targets public transport, pedestrian zones and cycle lanes and promote compact, multi-use urban development.

  • Finance: Tax incentives and subsidies can be used to stimulate the up-take of green technologies.

  • Technology Transfer: Transfer of technology and skills to developing countries should be adapted to suit local context, not simply ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions from the developed world. Capacity building on management and maintenance is an important part of technology and skills transfer.

  • Innovation: Supporting and/or establishing educational and research bodies that can support the development of skills, capabilities and networks on urban sustainability.

A second new UNEP report examines how cities can better access climate finance through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The “Feasibility Study on the Development of an Urban CDM”, recommends reforming the existing CDM to allow for methodologies geared towards cities. It also recommends the development of a CDM program of activities for pilot cities that would inform the future development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions and assist in the transition to a green economy.



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