I recently returned from Abu Dhabi where I attended a United Nations gathering on cities and the environment. I met with dozens of experts from around the world to debate ideas and draft a report on the environmental challenges that cities experience but also create, and to outline a sustainable and inclusive vision for tomorrow’s cities. GEO-6 for Cities will be released in the Fall and aims to inform, engage and support a dialogue among local-level decision makers and other key actors involved in urban issues. It is a follow-up on the United Nations’ sixth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-6) released last year – the most comprehensive assessment of the state of the global environment in five years. Under the theme of “Healthy Planet, Healthy People”, GEO-6 aims to guide policymakers and other key actors to achieve the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It summarizes the most recent science and relevant policy trends and identifies pathways towards a sustainable future.
The environment has continued to deteriorate since the release of the first GEO report in 1997, and the world is not on track to meet the SDGs or the Paris Climate Agreement. Avoiding irreversible impacts therefore requires urgent and effective action. Despite a gloomy outlook, GEO-6 outlines a number of pathways towards the healthy planet needed for sustainable and inclusive development. These emphasize transformative change that enable transitions towards sustainable production and consumption patterns, resource efficiency and decoupling, corporate responsibility and more. To be effective, policies must be coordinated across multiple scales by governments, business and society.
GEO-6 for Cities aims to translate the main report’s findings to the urban agenda in a compelling way so that city leaders and stakeholders are informed of the challenges they face and can act accordingly. This special emphasis on cities is significant as more than half of the world’s population is urban, and over two thirds are projected to live in cities by 2050. Their environmental impact reaches far beyond their borders. On average, cities produce around 70% of the world’s GDP and consume two thirds of the world’s energy. Urbanization leads to loss of habitat in key biodiversity hotspots, while also enhancing marginalization and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Cities also play an important role in leading the path towards a more sustainable future, as they concentrate the human and economic resources to make it happen. They are centers of commerce, culture and innovation. Many cities across the globe are committing to net-zero emissions, reducing their water footprint, densification rather than sprawl, green rather than grey infrastructure and many other pathways towards sustainability. Cities will also need to mainstream climate resilience across their built environment and institutional structures. Crucially, they must pay special attention to already vulnerable populations as they are disproportionately impacted by climate risks, air pollution, contaminated water, and the list goes on.
By bringing together experts from around the world and a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, GEO for Cities bridges different types of knowledge and perspectives and brings science into the realms of policy and action. Knowledge sharing, multi-stakeholder partnerships and evidence-based decision making is key for sustainable and inclusive solutions. At Greenleaf Communities we share this approach and strive to advance applied research based on sound science for a healthy and sustainable world. For example, through our work with CURES we have supported an initiative by the University of Illinois that will help cities address urban stresses with solutions informed by its leading research and its network of partners. Cities are estimated to contribute 70% of global CO2 emissions and moving towards zero-carbon cities are integral to the climate solution. Our work on climate policy supports this transition by outlining a path towards decarbonizing our economy and rapidly shifting to renewables. Cities can lead the way and scale up solutions for a healthy and sustainable world. It gives us great hope to see how many individuals and organizations around the world are aligned with this mission.