Publication: The Week

Urbanisation and carbon emissions: Shaping the future of sustainable cities

Published Date: 02-Nov-2023

"In 2020, cities dumped a whopping 29 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases, poses a serious health hazard."

As the world becomes increasingly urbanised, the relationship between urban areas and carbon emissions has taken centre stage in the ongoing climate crisis. With urbanisation being one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century, understanding its impact on carbon emissions is crucial. It's not just about the 70% of CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels attributed to urban areas; the effect of urbanisation on the global carbon cycle goes beyond these emissions. In this article, we delve into the multifaceted nature of urbanisation's impact on carbon emissions and present a solution-oriented approach to tackling this pressing issue.

Implications and the urgent need for change

As per various estimates, by 2050, seven billion people will be living in cities, and that will accentuate the concerns regarding worsening climate, sustainability. In the year 2020 alone, inhabitants of urban areas collectively released a staggering 29 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. While these emissions are a potent driver of climate change, they also pose a severe threat to public health. The consequences of this surge in CO2 levels extend beyond the realm of meteorological records and climate models. Rising CO2 levels translate into more frequent and extreme weather events, leading to loss of life, livelihoods, property, and essential resources. Furthermore, it erodes the social wellbeing of communities. As we barrel towards 2050, with an expected seven billion city dwellers, the stakes for climate sustainability have never been higher. Increased urbanisation, exacerbated by global warming, contributes to a rise in the concentration of ozone, leading to health complications, particularly for those with respiratory issues.

The urban expansion, encroaching upon previously untouched areas, endangers food security and triggers resource conflicts. The carbon emissions from urban areas necessitate a transition to low-carbon cities to mitigate these detrimental impacts on our climate and society.

Towards low carbon cities?

To build low-carbon cities, we need a sector-coupling approach that assesses and transforms multiple sectors, including energy, buildings, transportation, industry, and urban land use. It is essential to address both the supply and demand sides to realise this vision.

In the energy sector, promoting the use of clean and cost-effective technologies and transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables is vital. Carbon-dioxide removal (CDR) technologies must be implemented, and renewable-based district cooling and heating networks should be established to reduce emissions. Further, transportation can be made more sustainable by relocating workplaces closer to residential complexes, electrifying public transport, and encouraging active modes of transport like bicycling and walking. Additionally, in terms of construction of buildings and infrastructure, the emphasis should be on energy-efficient services, low-emission construction materials, and mandating net-zero energy for new constructions while retrofitting existing buildings.

Sustainable development and benefits of energy-system transitions

The crux of this transition is sustainable development – a way of life that harmonises with the planet's preservation and optimal resource utilisation. Such a development considers the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

The benefits of transitioning to low-carbon cities are multifold. It can significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases, providing better employment conditions, boosting knowledge intensity in firms, and promoting skill development. Moreover, it ensures food security, sustainable living, and livelihood options, while protecting biodiversity and human health.

Challenges and justice concerns

Transitioning to low-carbon cities is not without its challenges. Developing economies that rely on fossil fuels and have limited access to renewable energy options may be disproportionately affected. In developed countries, the potential for inequity arises due to high energy costs and associated economic disparities. Moreover, energy justice and social equity issues can have severe implications for the economic wellbeing of people, livelihoods, and economic development.

Justice concerns also manifest in land evictions for large-scale renewable energy projects, the marginalisation of certain communities, and increased gender gaps. To address these concerns, a comprehensive approach is needed, one that considers the voices of different communities and utilises indigenous and local knowledge and experiences.

The S.E.E.D. formula for sustainable urbanisation

In conclusion, the path towards low-carbon cities is crucial for our planet's survival. To navigate this path, we present the S.E.E.D. formula, encompassing Sector-Coupling Approach, Energy-System Transitions, Equity, and Decarbonization.

Embracing the S.E.E.D. formula is our path forward to sustainable urbanisation. By doing so, we can mitigate the consequences of urbanisation on the environment, reduce carbon emissions, and ultimately build cities that are not only green but also provide a higher quality of life for all their inhabitants. It is the only way to ensure that the future will indeed be green, and that our planet can thrive for generations to come.

To conclude, we must remind ourselves of the famous words by Bob Brown -

 "The future will either be green or not at all."

Dr Heera Lal Patel IAS is the Special Secretary of the Government of Uttar Pradesh.


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