Climate change and its effect on our lives and livelihoods is the biggest threat of our times. Given it is estimated that the climate crisis presents a $314-billion annual cost, it is critical that everyone, not just governments, come together to address this risk.
This is key in cities because about half of the world’s population live in urban areas. Urbanisation will continue as people look for work opportunities and a better quality of life, but the increased population puts extra strain on already over-stretched resources. In the South African context and other emerging markets, millions live in urban informal settlements and are particularly vulnerable to climate change.
Against this backdrop, World Cities Day, which was marked this past Sunday (31 October) puts climate change firmly on the global agenda with its focus on adapting cities for climate resilience. It aims to increase awareness of climate change adaptation and urban resilience, inspire effective action at the local level by sharing knowledge on effective urban systems and resilience solutions and contribute to the New Urban Agenda, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement for Climate Change to achieve the sustainable development goals.
Opportunities from the Covid crisis
Covid-19 has been a world leveller, but it has shown us what is possible when people across the global ecosystem and at the local level come together to address immediate risk. The recovery from the world’s worst event since World War II is beginning to show as economies become active after 18 months of being put on pause.
This presents an opportunity to reset and transform urban economies to become more sustainable by enabling the adoption of innovative, green and inclusive solutions. Everything that we do should be focused on sustainable urbanisation.
But urbanisation needs to be viewed differently. From urbanisation comes innovation; cities are breeding grounds for this. Just consider how, in the absence of having access to UberEats in the townships, youth are developing their own technology platforms that allow people to order food to be delivered to their homes using bikes. Such an example is Cloudy Deliveries in Cape Town, which is working with Langa Bicycle Hub, or the Thumela app, which is used by residents of eSikhawini in Kwazulu-Natal. In so doing they are learning from the big players and creating an economy for themselves around a daily demand.
Rethinking our cities
Teeming urban epicentres are also the perfect landscape for 24-hour cities, cities that take into consideration how we use our resources and spread them across the grid. Before Covid-19, commuters travelled at peak times to get to and from work; in the 24-hour city this is an antiquated notion because workers choose when they want to work, taking pressure off the roads and reducing carbon emissions. Further, this limits the daily demand for water in the early mornings and at night because there is no rush on the taps.
On the policy front we are making great strides in addressing climate sustainability, and this has been happening over the past decade. A case in point is the announcement made last year by Minister of Minerals Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe that municipalities can buy and produce their own electricity.
This was in line with one of the key commitments that President Cyril Ramaphosa made in his economic reconstruction and recovery plan for South Africa to parliament during his 2020 State of the Nation address. More recently, a new Bill is on the table that slaps big polluters with a heavy carbon tax. This is an effort to transition the country to become a greener economy. It comes weeks before the United Nations climate change conference (COP26) and demonstrates the government’s commitment to cut national emissions of carbon gases.
Integrating green into the mainstream
Green projects also need to be seen as more mainstream and we must recognise and address the complex urban challenges in an integrated and holistic way. This means viewing climate change, urban poverty, informal settlements and basic services to all as the same thing, each is affected by the other and “green” must not be seen as a separate effort. A multisectoral and multistakeholder approach that looks at all the issues of urbanisation is fundamental for any city resilience building. We need to work smarter with less. As a continent, not even just as a country, we will be forced to become more sustainable by integrating the green agenda into everything that we do going forward.
We also need to inculcate a sense of activism among every consumer of goods and services, from the suburbs and the informal settlements to business and the government. Every person consumes resources and creates waste. It’s what we do with that waste that matters. Take the City of Johannesburg. It has pioneered a concept where landfill gas is recycled and put back into the grid. It works by using the methane gas emitted from the disposal of waste through burning and converting it into clean energy. Although it took many years to get the initiative off the ground, in 2016 it produced its first megawatt of power and is to run until 2036.
Efforts such as these are happening everywhere — and we need more of them. The solution does not lie only with the government, it lies at a local level if all people are inspired to replicate initiatives such as the City of Johannesburg’s in their own backyards. If we don’t engender an all-of-society approach, we run the risk of exposing our country, our cities and our people, often the most vulnerable among us, to the climate crisis. Let’s act together to adapt our cities to be more resilient to what is sure to come: floods, droughts, rising sea levels, landslides and storms. We need synergetic solutions that put people and the planet first.
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