Joint action by city leaders is increasingly needed to crack the sustainability puzzle presented by growing populations in search of better lives. Failure is not an option, as Wall-e can attest. Photo: Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr/Creative Commons

As our world becomes increasingly urban, our opportunity to create more sustainable ways of living also increases. I am hopeful that we are now entering an era of renewed social and economic growth, driven by civic leaders and savvy citizens who are reshaping their communities on a green-building model.

Around 66% of the global population will live in cities by 2050, up from some 54% today. Most of these new city dwellers will be in Asia and Africa. Some 404 million people will make the move to the city from India’s countryside by 2050, along with 292 million people in China. In this new world, high-density cities, like Hong Kong, will be the norm. Mega-cities, like Tokyo, Jakarta and Delhi, will be common. Mega-city clusters, as in China’s Pearl River Delta and its Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei super-region, will continue to grow upwards and outwards.

This urban shift is in many respects a major challenge but also provides us with a great opportunity.

To cope with booming population growth, cities have to continuously add more buildings, transportation, water and energy infrastructure, and so on. They also have to regenerate and renew what is already there.

The decision to take a sustainable approach to these unavoidable infrastructure investments is a decision to also drive economic growth and improve quality of life. Cities have a magnetic attraction for people seeking a better future; green cities deliver on the promise.

Enjoying more vibrant green cities

Green cities are more efficient and connected. They use less energy and promote clean energy sources, like wind and solar. These cities are vital to implementing the Paris Agreement and reducing carbon emissions to combat global climate change.

A green city will give you cleaner air and water, less traffic congestion and an improved standard of living

Green cities also increase liveability. A green city will give you cleaner air and water, less traffic congestion and an improved standard of living. Such cities attract talented people and support all citizens to be healthier and more productive, creating a virtuous circle where vibrant community and economic opportunity go hand in hand.

The implication of this is that city-level action is now vital to creating a positive future for the planet and for people around the world.

City leaders are increasingly embracing sustainability to fast-track urban improvements.

Seoul has boldly prioritized walking, cycling and eco-friendly public transport, and is now financing energy-retrofits for low-income families to help meet its emissions targets. Kolkata is collecting and recycling solid waste to clean up the city and reduce pressure on its landfills. Shenzhen has implemented an Emissions Trading Scheme. New York is investing to improve the energy efficiency of its public buildings and to spur private-sector action. And Curitiba has launched an ambitious urban agriculture program that grows food, reduces waste, promotes awareness and helps reduce the city’s vulnerability to climate change.

Collaborating to lead the global transition

Each of these cities is part of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which unites more than 80 of the world’s mega-cities, representing over 600 million people and one quarter of the global economy. Their joint commitment is to take action on climate change to implement the Paris Agreement and ensure their cities remain competitive, attractive and resilient.

Also taking action on the Paris Agreement are 167 states and regions in 33 countries, representing more than one billion people and US$25 trillion in GDP (35% of the world total), which have committed to transforming their economies to stay under the 2°C limit as part of the Under2 Coalition.

This leadership at the city level will further deepen and grow as the new Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy gains momentum. As the vice-chair of this collation, I’ll be working with more than 7,000 mayors from close to 120 countries across six continents. These inspiring leaders represent more than 600 million people, over 8% of the world’s population. They are leading the transition to a more resilient low-carbon world.

Taking the next steps in Hong Kong

It has become clear over the past few decades that bringing together city officials, citizens, academics and business leaders is the key to overcoming challenges and building successful green cities.

World Sustainable Built Environment Conference 2017 provides a blueprint.

Hosted for the first time in Hong Kong, from June 5-7, WSBE17 Hong Kong will provide a platform for the exchange of actionable ideas on how we can sustainably transform the world’s cities. This event is the culmination of the 2015-2017 cycle of the Sustainable Built Environment series of conferences and will embrace the findings from 20 regional conferences held worldwide in 2016. We will learn how current initiatives, commitments and programs can be extended for action on a global scale.

I expect to be informed, inspired and encouraged.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Christiana Figueres

Christiana Figueres is the vice-chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors and a world authority on climate change. As Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC from 2010-2016, she oversaw the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.