Africa: Urban Culture and Climate Change Action - the 10th World Urban Forum

Annual repair of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali (file photo).
press release

The link between cultural and natural heritage - and the role the two can play in tackling climate change - runs far deeper.

Thank you to the United Arab Emirates for hosting us in the beautiful city of Abu Dhabi. I am also deeply grateful to UN Habitat for carving out a space that brings together people and different stakeholders who recognize the major role that cities play in the fight to tackle global warming. There is amazing leadership of cities going zero carbon, and cities making ambitious commitments on critical elements on such a pathway, from net zero buildings to 100% renewable and similar commitments.

Humans have long come up with ingenious ways to protect themselves from the weather. In the hot, desert region of the gulf, architects used to build windcatchers on people's roofs. The vents channeled the breeze and cooled down the inside of people's homes. Courtyard houses are a traditional building design in many of the hot climate zones, as it provides passive cooling through natural ventilation, shading and reduced direct sunlight. This was long before the advent of fossil-fuel powered air conditioners.

Modern architects are beginning to catch on to the wisdom of ancient cultures. Drawing on Indian techniques used 1,500 years ago, a Fashion Institute in Northern India stays six degrees cooler inside than out - without the need for air conditioning. In Mexico, a university is using compressed earth blocks and other green features to build buildings that reduce the amount of energy consumed by more than 50 per cent. And Medellin in Colombia, reduced temperatures by over 2°C by turning its concrete jungles into urban forests.

But also beyond the single building, there are good examples at the neighbourhood scale. Ancient medinas have perfected natural shading, with their narrow and curbed street system with frequent intersections.

We need to revalorize and modernize traditional knowledge and techniques, taking their cultural value and adapting it to modern demands. UNEP is the host of the Secretariat of the Cool Coalition. Looking at building design and urban form as well as nature-based solutions is part of the AVOID, SHIFT, IMPROVE approach that this Coalition is taking to address the challenge of increasing cooling demand linked to global climate change.

At the Climate COP in Madrid last year, a session hosted by the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, highlighted the importance of national and local governments using their heritage buildings to lead by example and demonstrate options and benefits of deep renovation.

The link between cultural and natural heritage - and the role the two can play in tackling climate change - runs far deeper.

Urban lifestyles very often lead to big environmental footprints. Some 75 per cent of the world's energy and natural resources are consumed in cities. And roughly 60 per cent of all waste and 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from urban centres. And direct and indirect emissions from air conditioning and refrigeration are projected to rise 90 per cent by 2050 over 2017 levels.

Already there are promising signs that forward-looking cities are beginning to change cultures as they seek to relieve the pressures being placing on the natural world. In Africa, Rwanda's ban on plastic bags has massively reduced plastic pollution. With our Global Initiative on Resource Efficient Cities, we have supported cities to assess their metabolism - one way to help define priorities and to move from waste management to circularity.

Similarly, cities like Paris and Amsterdam are moving their people away from their dependence on cars. With our programme 'Share the Road', we provide support to cities to promote the use of non-motorised transport options.

Far more needs to be done if we are to spark the radical cultural shift that is necessary.

Let me go back to my example on housing, buildings and construction sector. While we are facing a qualitative and quantitative housing deficit in many cities around the world, we see that the energy efficiency improvements made to date have been taken up by the increase in floorspace. This is a development we know far too well from the transport sector, where consistently the fuel efficiency improvements were eroded by more vehicles on the road and more miles driven.

Global energy demand in our homes and the residential construction sector is set to rise by 50 per cent within 40 years. Therefore, how we design, build, power and retrofit the cities of the future, and how we make better use of space will play a major role in tackling the climate crisis.

The shifts in urban culture that we so badly need touch everything, not only housing and mobility but also the food we eat to the very economic underpinnings of modern life. Short circuit food supply chains, urban farming, and a plant-based diet will play a big part in this transformation. So too will the shift to a circular economy, a change that promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in some sectors by 85 per cent by 2050.

As the UN Secretary-General says, we need to "embrace the transformation that will bring us to a carbon-neutral world by 2050". Embracing this transformation should not be hard - a world with a stable climate where cities have clean air, better health, fresher food, and greener, more pleasant spaces is within our grasp. The hard part will be explaining to our children why we chose not to act.

Thank you.

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