Global south needs climate answers not just international commitments

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Once the heart of the ancient world, Egypt is once again the political capital of the globe, as COP27 shines a light on the challenges facing the global south, says Arup’s Sowmya Parthasarathy.

The urgency of the work we are undertaking to battle climate change is no longer arguable. Much of the discussion at this COP is about the danger faced by the entire international community – with delegates seeking to agree greater and faster commitments from governments across the world to combat it on a global scale. However, the location of this conference in Africa provides an important moment for us to draw focus on the pressing needs of the global south, home to many of the areas which are most immediately at risk.

The conference will undoubtedly discuss how best to transfer funds for climate action to countries which need it most, but discussions must also shine a light on the fact that the most severely affected countries require bespoke answers, not just global commitments.

Looking at the problem through an international lens will only take us so far. To tackle climate change most effectively we must devise solutions which respond to local needs. If we fail to do so, the people and areas under greatest threat will soon start to see more irreparable damage. We should use COP as an opportunity to highlight the power of local action – listening to those who are already seeing the effects on their communities and adapting our approach to target their most pressing issues.

Climate resilience is about adapting our future developments and infrastructure to withstand the increased volatility climate change brings. A prime example of this volatility is the increasing number of extreme weather events we are experiencing. Carbon Brief’s analysis of extreme weather events across Africa finds that more than 19 million people have been affected in 2022 alone through droughts, wildfires, severe storms and catastrophic flooding across the continent.

If global warming reaches the worst-case scenario of four degrees, we will see a four or five-fold increase in direct flood damage across the world. Even if we limit temperature rise to the 1.5C set out in the Paris Agreement, much of the change has already started to take effect – with 44% of all global ‘disaster events’ in recent years being flood related and around a billion people experiencing an increase in maximum daily rainfall where they live.

“COP27 offers us the rare opportunity presented by leaders from around the world travelling to the global south with an agenda focused not just on climate action but on a just transition,” says Sowmya Parthasarathy, director of integrated city planning at Arup.

Adapting our cities for a growing urban population is another key area of focus, as climate impacts force more people to migrate to the relative security of cities. Currently, around 55% of the global population live in urban areas and we know this number will continue to grow. Nowhere is this more critical than in Africa.

Over the coming years the continent will have the fastest urban growth rate in the world, with its cities expected to be home to as many as a billion extra people by 2050. Making sure that our existing as well as future buildings, infrastructure, and landscapes are able to withstand the impacts from rising temperatures and weather events is essential if we are to create habitable and equitable cities for our people.

The security of future generations across the global south and the rest of the world will depend on the actions we take now. As designers and planners of our cities and infrastructure we have the knowledge and the creativity to build climate resilient and sustainable cities which keep their populations safe, healthy, and prosperous. No one can do this alone.

We need to do this in collaboration, bringing together political leaders, activists, policymakers, investors, planners, designers, and local communities towards a common goal that will benefit us all. We must take heed of Goal 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to strengthen our means for implementing sustainable development through revitalising global partnerships.

The climate challenge we face is a shared, global one. COP27 offers us the rare opportunity presented by leaders from around the world travelling to the global south with an agenda focused not just on climate action but on a just transition. Let’s use the opportunity to hear the voices from our host continent and to refocus our attention on what needs to be done here.

If we can do that, it will bring us closer to a climate strategy which will leave no one behind.

Sowmya Parthasarathy is the director of integrated city planning at Arup.