UNEP warns cities must change to meet 2030 objectives

Cover of report

UN Environment Programme report tells cities locked into unsustainable status quo to change path now as environmental crisis hits urban life. 

While megacities remain economically, socially and ecologically important, growth is also accelerating in small and medium-sized cities, especially in developing countries. Inequality within and between cities affects human health, well-being and the environment and UNEP has set warned that cities aren’t all on the path to tackling these holistically.

Cities are affecting and affected by climate change
The UNEP report explains that global environmental challenges affect the value of essential city infrastructure and the quality of life of urban residents. Environmental changes in air, fresh water, biodiversity, oceans, coasts and land – even in far-flung but connected places – affect human aspects such as health, equity and food security at the city level, which means urban management needs to reflect this.

At the same time, cities also impact all three environmental crises: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. These environmental impacts primarily result from energy and materials used in cities (particularly in transport and buildings). Cities are also centres of increasing consumption patterns, including for food and the generation and management of waste.

Governance is key to successful change
As a result, the new report warns of several factors that “lock” cities into an unsustainable status quo. These factors include:

  • The prevalence of the static political economy, which often leads to capture of governance systems by vested interests;
  • The dominance of business-as-usual models of urban planning that tend to focus on controlling, taming or exploiting nature; and
  • The complex and multi-level governance systems to which cities belong and within which they operate.

These “lock” factors vary across cities but have slowed transformational progress to date, according to the report. However, it also points to the success of some cities in using different governance processes to build more equitable and sustainable futures. These processes include:

  • Inclusive, publicly engaged decision-making;
  • Partnerships and coalition-based governance; and
  • Institutionalisation for longevity and scaling up.

While the success of any measure may vary depending on the local conditions, the report explains that these approaches to urban planning and overall city management, aligns with success at changing the sustainability performance of cities.

The role of expanded data
Among the specific solutions set out by the report, better collection and use of data to inform decision-making ranks highly.

The report suggests that although enough data and information currently exist to allow cities to take action, there are gaps in data quantity and quality that, if they were filled, would help refine urban planning and environmental management at the city level.

The report suggests, however, that many of the insights needed to guide long-term planning and transformational pathways require specialist expertise that often does not sit within local governments. As a result, outside expert guidance is often needed to gather, process and interpret the data required for material flow analyses, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity baselines and resilience assessments.

That involvement of industry will be crucial not only with data, but across other solutions the report looks into, such as building rural-urban linkages and redesigning infrastructure networks to lock in better long-term impacts.