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Tackling Our Urbanized Future: Solutions from COP21

Mary Mazzoni headshotWords by Mary Mazzoni
Energy & Environment
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The COP21 climate talks in Paris run the gamut, as delegates, state and local governments, business and NGO leaders, and policy makers discuss everything from sustainable agriculture and forestry to divestment and climate finance. All of these discussions are aimed at a single goal: to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, which scientists consider to be the tipping point to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

But when we look decades into the future, it's important to remember how our world will change. For example, in 1950, 30 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas. By 2050, nearly 70 percent will call urban areas home.

Our rapidly urbanizing world presents both challenges and opportunities. City-dwellers tend to live more sustainable lifestyles overall, shunning oversized homes for flats, condos and duplexes, and often ditching cars in favor of public transportation. But as cities around the world face massive population booms, governments must figure out to how to house all of their new residents, maintain a good quality of life for them, and do all of this without an undue impact on the planet.

This presents a significant dilemma, as construction is historically a very dirty industry: The buildings and construction sector is responsible for 30 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be this way.

The industry has the potential to avoid about 3.2 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2050 through mainstreaming state-of-the-art policies and technologies that are already available today, experts said during a media briefing on Thursday for the Lima-Paris Action Agenda's Focus on Buildings. In fact, they added, reducing energy demand in the building sector is one of the most cost-effective strategies for achieving significant worldwide greenhouse gas reductions.

"This sector has a huge potential to provide solutions," Naoko Ishii, CEO and chairperson for the Global Environment Facility, said on Thursday. "By 2050, building demand can be reduced by a third if already-known technologies and best practices are fully implemented."

So, why is this not happening already? "Because," Ishii continued, "if we don't do anything and just sit and wait, these stakeholders, particularly city regulators and businesses, are not always coming together."

Under the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), 18 countries and more than 60 organizations have set out to change that -- launching an unprecedented Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction to speed up and scale up the sector’s potential to reduce its emissions. This is huge news for a crucial sector that already employs around 110 million people, a number that will only grow in the coming years, said Ibrahim Thiaw, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of the U.N. Environment Program.

"What we do in the building sector will be crucial for not only developing countries but for cities around the world," Thiaw said.

Coming together for better cities


Real estate represents about 50 percent of global wealth. Creating this transformation requires investing around an additional US$220 billion by 2020 – an almost 50 percent increase on 2014 investment in energy-efficient buildings – but less than 4 percent of the current total global annual investment in construction activity (pegged at $8.5 trillion annually). Returns on this investment could be as high as 124 percent if investments in ambitious policy and technology actions are made now, the LPAA said.

Next-generation cities could mean an even bigger financial boon in the form of savings for local governments: The global economy could save $18 trillion by making cities more efficient by 2050 -- as $7 trillion from improving buildings and the remainder coming from improvements to the transportation sector, Ishii explained.

As of today, 91 countries have included elements of commitments, national programs, or projects and plans relating to buildings in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the declarations by countries of the commitments they're prepared to make coming into Paris.

With support and greater awareness, many more may realize the potential for the building sector to contribute to realizing national targets, the LPAA said. Yet, as Ishii pointed out, the building sector is very local and needs to align many different actors, which is a primary objective of the new alliance.

Pierre-André de Chalendar, CEO of Saint Gobain, agreed: "What is very interesting about the building sector is that there are indeed solutions. We know how to make buildings that consume less energy. This technology already exists. Why doesn't it work? It's because we don't work together enough -- and this is why this alliance is so important."

Equity takes center stage


While creating more efficient buildings, and even net-positive structures and smart cities, is important, experts also underscored the need for equity in rolling out new technologies -- which will be a key focus of the alliance.

"New buildings have all of these new standards, but we have to think about people living their daily lives. They can't necessarily afford these new technologies ... right now they're using coal for heating," said Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera. "So, what we need to do now is not create unequal societies, but we have to use these technologies and make them available for everybody, so that we can produce social housing with all this technology in it."

Mohammed Nabil Benabdallah, minister of housing and cities for Morocco, which plans to surge its provision of affordable social housing from 1.2 million units to 5 million, agreed: "We need to work so that we can use intelligence and smarts to ... improve access to housing and to make sure that we improve conditions in that housing," he said at COP21 on Thursday. "We don't want to use this approach just for certain neighborhoods, richer neighborhoods. So, using this technology, we need to create more inclusive, fair and more equitable cities."

Thiaw concurred with these calls for equity in the roll-out of next-generation cities, but he said existing technologies -- and new partnerships such as this one that help bring them to scale -- can make this dream a reality:

"The good news is that the cost of technology has gone down a lot in the last few years. Access to renewable energy, for example, is now real because the cost has gone down ... It means also having more equality. You can't have two cities -- one is smart and the other next to it is a slum -- so it means having better management of the cities."
Image credit: Mary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni headshotMary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor, has written for TriplePundit since 2013. She is also Managing Editor of CR Magazine and the Editor of 3p’s Sponsored Series. Mazzoni’s recent work can be found in Conscious CompanyAlterNet and VICE’s Motherboard. She is based in Philadelphia.

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