By Nasha Lee, Environment Analyst
The 2019 UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP 25, is currently underway in the Spanish capital of Madrid. Within the halls of the negotiations, as negotiators discuss more ambitious action on climate change, the phrase “climate emergency” has been used generously. From children skipping school for climate strikes, to protests which put city centres to a standstill – 2019 is the year in which the climate emergency has been dragged to the mainstream by people all around the world.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
Cities at the frontline of climate change
Cities offer a solution to the climate emergency. Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, which produce 80% of GDP and are responsible for a whopping three quarters of carbon emissions. This share of population, economic activity and emissions is set to grow rapidly.
By 2050, two-thirds of our global population will live in urban areas. Nearly 90% of the growth in urban population will occur in Asia and Africa. As urban populations in these regions continue to grow and have greater material prosperity, there will be a corresponding rise in the consumption of resources and energy, and generation of waste. It is becoming increasingly real that the battle for the planet will be won or lost in cities.
Over time, cities and its inhabitants will also be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, ranging from heat waves, to droughts, floods and hurricanes. 70% of cities around the world are already dealing with climate impacts, while nearly all cities are at risk.
A 2018 report by C40 forecasts that 1.6 billion people would be regularly exposed to extreme high temperatures by 2050. Food supplies would also be under threat, with one in four people (2.5 billion people) living in over 1,600 cities facing food insecurity due to climate change. Richer cities such as Athens, Barcelona, Istanbul and Los Angeles are not excluded from this list.
Malaysia’s recent climate change report to the UNFCCC, an output of a UNDP- Global Environment Facility Project shows that the country’s temperature, rainfall and sea levels have been on the rise in the last 40 years, and are projected to continue rising to 2050. Average temperatures are projected to hike between 1.2 to 1.6oC by 2050. This brings about an added vulnerability to a large proportion of our urban population who live in low-elevation coastal areas.
Low Carbon Cities
Low carbon cities are an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions while offering tremendous economic opportunities. A new report from the Coalition for Urban Transition show that by using existing low-carbon technologies and practices, we could cut 90% of emissions globally. These would require an investment of USD 1.8 trillion (approximately 2% of global GDP) a year but will generate annual returns worth USD2.8 trillion in 2030 from the energy and material cost savings alone.
Carbon emissions in Malaysia mainly relate to urban settings, where the energy sector (including electricity and transportation) makes up 80% of total emissions. This means that there is enormous potential to reduce emissions from the energy sector to obtain both carbon and cost savings. A joint study by UNDP and the Economic Planning Unit (now known as the Ministry of Economic Affairs) estimated that just by improving energy efficiency in the buildings and transport sectors, RM46.9 billion (USD 11.2 billion) in energy spending could be saved between 2016 and 2030.
Low carbon city measures such clean energy, energy efficiency, sustainable transport and integrated waste management can help cities to leapfrog to a sustainable and green development pathway. Investments in low carbon cities also create opportunities for decent work in these new emerging sectors.
Many cities in Malaysia have already set a low-carbon vision or developed a low carbon action plan, and the preparation of greenhouse gas inventories that can help to track low-carbon actions are also underway. Urban areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Iskandar Malaysia, Seberang Perai and Melaka have signed up to be members of city alliances such as the C40 and ICLEI, making a commitment to minimise their carbon footprints. A total of 52 local authorities are now part of the Low Carbon City Framework Programme which encourages strategies and actions to reduce carbon emissions at the local level.
These cities are part of a group of almost 10,000 cities that are stepping up and committing to inspirational action to reduce carbon emissions.
What is UNDP Malaysia doing?
With funding support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNDP is working together with our partners the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) and the Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) to implement a low carbon cities project titled the Green Technology Application for the Development of Low Carbon Cities (GTALCC) project.
The GTALCC project promotes integrated solutions covering a few focus areas: (1) integrated planning for climate action, (2) crowding in private investment and supporting city-level climate finance instruments, (3) driving the zero-carbon transition with a focus on integrated urban energy, building, transport and waste systems.
A snapshot of the project’s key activities in 2019 is below:
It is crucial for both cities and the national government to play their respective roles in this low-carbon transition. The GTALCC project is supporting this by working with five pilot cities (Putrajaya, Iskandar Malaysia, Cyberjaya, Petaling Jaya and Hang Tuah Jaya) to roll out sustainable city solutions. At the same time, the project is leveraging national support through the development of the National Low Carbon Cities Masterplan, which outlines the direction and plans for the transition towards low carbon cities in Malaysia. The Masterplan which will be launched in 2020 establishes a common definition of what low carbon cities are, while identifying the key actions and targets for cities. The GTALCC project builds upon the work that UNDP Malaysia is doing on localising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and making the SDGs real to communities, households and cities.
Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General once said that “Cities are engines of growth, innovation and prosperity. It is possible and realistic to realise net-zero emissions by 2050. But to get there we will need the full engagement of city governments combined with national action and support.” The threat of climate change has never been greater, but ambitious action from cities has the potential for transformative change worthy to turnaround the climate emergency.