Cities are at the frontline of the climate crisis. Global urban activity generates three-quarters of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and the effects of climate change are already being felt in 70% of cities worldwide. Urban populations continue to increase, partly as a result of climate-driven migration, and the number of people worldwide residing in cities is expected to increase from 55% to 68% by 2050.
As global urbanisation grows and the impact of climate change puts increased pressure on urban systems, the challenges faced by cities grow as well.
However, cities are also at the forefront of action in mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the battle for climate action will be won or lost at the level of local and regional government.
The climate targets set at a national level by every country that has signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement are likely insufficient to fully minimise the impact of the current climate crisis. The cooperation of each country’s various levels of government, including at the regional and local level is needed, and cities worldwide have begun to implement their own initiatives and action plans to create a more sustainable urban future.
This is what the Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation (SURGe) Initiative aims to achieve. Launched by the COP 27 presidency in collaboration with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and facilitated by Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), the goal of SURGe is to transform cities into healthy, sustainable, just, inclusive, low-emission and resilient urban systems in order to provide a better urban future for all.
Global endorsement of this initiative was a central focus for the LGMA Multi-Level Action Pavilion at COP 27, which acted as the home of cities and regions throughout the conference; it has now been endorsed by over 100 global partners.
The executive director of the UN-Habitat, Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, spoke about this initiative at the Multi-Level Action Pavillion on November 16. She opened her speech by pointing out that although cities consume 70% of the world’s energy and emit 70% of carbon emissions, the physical footprint of all the world’s cities only covers 2% of the earth’s surface. But, this incredible population density represents both the problem and the solution:
“Cities are the talent hub. Cities are the investment hub. Cities are the innovation hub. So, why can’t we flip the script? Where can we change the narrative to collaboration, that urbanisation is the opportunities and the solution to the challenges faced by the cities and by the world now.”
Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif took on the role of Executive Director of UN-Habitat in January 2018, becoming the first Asian woman to do so. She has also served as the Acting Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) and currently holds the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations in the UN System. Prior to her appointment as Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Sharif was the Mayor of Penang Island, Malaysia.
During her time as Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif Sharif has focused on transforming the agency into an agile and innovative leader on urban issues. She is also known for bringing a people-centred and inclusive approach to all issues of urban planning, development, and resilience whilst promoting the positions of marginalised individuals and communities, such as women and youth, within urban systems.
Impakter had the occasion to speak with Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif and this is what she told us.
In the speech that you delivered at the Multi-Level Action Pavillion last month, you mentioned the need for cities to use the talents, capital, and innovation at their disposal to inspire solution-oriented programs to the challenges faced by cities and the world as a whole. ICLEI, as a network of global cities working collectively to find solutions to many of the challenges you described, has access to a treasure trove of potential resources; what should ICLEI prioritise in its work moving forward in order to fully harness this potential?
Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif: We need action, action on the local level, and action now. I believe that ICLEI should focus on facilitating a dialogue between local, regional, and national governments. We need strong and effective multilateralism to achieve scale and take urban climate action. By effective multilateralism, I mean the collaboration between different levels of government but also a horizontal collaboration between the public and private sectors.
Now that the Earth is home to a staggering 8 billion people, up to 68% of whom are expected to be living in urban settlements by 2050, what do you think will be the greatest issue that this mass migration into cities will pose to cities themselves and to their inhabitants, especially the more vulnerable members of those communities?
Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif: Unplanned growth and expansion of cities will lead to insufficient basic services, and growing inequalities between the have and have-not. It will push marginalized and vulnerable communities to fragile land, often with higher exposure to climate impacts.
This mass migration into cities can lead to unsustainable consumption of resources, more pollution, and more waste in our cities if we do not start planning and managing urban growth. It will also mean a growing housing deficit and a lack of affordable housing.
However, let us remember that cities are not only the cause of problems. They can be solutions to many issues as well. Cities and urban areas can be the most sustainable form of human settlements if planned and managed well.
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In your work at UN-Habitat, you’ve aimed to address issues of social inequality in urban planning and make cities more inclusive and accessible to marginalised communities. What concrete steps are UN-Habitat taking to make urban communities more inclusive for women, youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, and the poor?
Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif: Inclusivity is one of the key principles we adhere to in our work. We want to make urban communities more inclusive and accessible. To do that, we use a participatory approach. We work with communities and not only see them as end recipients. For example, in one of our projects in Egypt, UN-Habitat has supported the government in planning a modern bus system, making it more responsive to the needs of women. Focus group discussions and an online survey revealed difficulties women experience when using public transport, lack of priority seating, harassment, poor security, and poor quality of footpaths and bus stops. Findings from these participatory processes informed the design of the Bus Rapid Transit system, which was developed considering the concerns expressed by women.
We also want to make communities more inclusive for the youth. Our Block-by-Block programme, in partnership with Minecraft, engages young people in planning their neighborhoods and communities and giving them a chance to add their voice to the development.
UN-Habitat also runs a dedicated programme to support the most marginalized groups, RISE UP: Resilient Settlements for the Urban Poor. This flagship project mobilizes large-scale investment to support the most vulnerable urban communities that have done the least to trigger climate change. More than 3.3 billion people live in hotspots, highly vulnerable to climate change, and more than 1 billion urban dwellers live in informal settlements. We identify vulnerable cities and communities and then work together to design community adaptation strategies and actions.
Regarding the Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation (SURGe) Initiative, which was launched at COP27, what are the primary goals that you would hope for the initiative to achieve in its first five years?
Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif: We have no time to waste. We need to act to be able to preserve our planet, both natural and built environment. With its ten guiding principles, the SURGe Initiative aims to accelerate local urban climate action through multi-level governance, engagement of experts, and focus on five integrated tracks: buildings and housing, urban energy, urban waste and consumption, urban mobility, and urban water. In the first year, we want to make progress on the local level toward meeting the Paris climate commitments and Sustainable Development Goals. This initiative builds on existing work in this space and the commitments of local and regional governments. Still, it provides a holistic framework for sustainable and resilient urban systems. Under the framework established by the SURGe initiative, cities can receive technical expertise from 117 organizations. These resources and support can help them create resilient urban systems for a better urban future.
In your opinion, as a regular and active annual participant at COP, what was the most successful outcome and the biggest disappointment for cities and regions to come from this year’s conference?
Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif: We have been preaching it for a long time, and now there is growing international awareness that the climate battle will be won or lost in cities. Recognizing that climate adaptation is a challenge faced by all with local, subnational, national, regional, and international dimensions is a significant achievement. Finally, cities, settlements, and infrastructure are mentioned in the framework for the global goal on adaptation. COP27 stressed an urgent need for multilevel and cooperative action and welcomed climate pledges of non-Parties to the UNFCCC, such as businesses, investors, cities, and regions.
A breakthrough for the urban community was certainly the first-ever Ministerial Meeting on Urbanization and Climate Change at COP27. It focused on housing, urban development, and multilevel action for climate change. This meeting brought together over 60 ministers and appointed representatives, over 40 mayors, local governors, and city leaders, as well as over 220 non-state actors to reinforce the commitment of the Paris Agreement for multi-level climate action and commit to accelerated climate change mitigation, climate change adaptation and local climate finance. More than 117 organizations signed up for the SURGe initiative launched at the meeting. I hope these meetings will also be a regular feature at COP, and we will not forget about the urban aspect of climate change work.
But with the climate crisis right in front of us, we need to do much more and much faster. The COP27 outcome documents are only incremental steps. Though these steps are important, they won’t push the needle to halt global warming. I hope there will be more mechanisms to help the developing and the most vulnerable nations undertake climate adaptation and mitigation work.
Now a more personal question, if I may. You earned a bachelor’s degree with honours in Town Planning Studies at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology and hold a Master of Science in Planning Studies from the Malaysia Science University. So, I imagine that this line of work has called to you or intrigued you since you were quite young. What originally interested you about this field and why did you choose to pursue it?
Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif: Actually, I qualified for Medical Studies but my cousin, who was studying on a scholarship in the United Kingdom, told me that if I came to the UK, I could see snow and ride in a double-decker bus. So, the excitement of being in a big city, was what led me to Town Planning. The Malaysian Government invested in urban planning as the country was industrialising. We needed to build the capacity of our local governments to ensure governmental policies could be implemented with positive impact for the people on the ground. You can say that this was what attracted me most to planning. I can see how aligning economic development with spatial planning lifted large numbers of people out of poverty. Bringing urban basic services to the most rural of places and I embraced the opportunity the profession provided in my first job in the George Town Municipal Council in Penang, Malaysia.
Having excelled in mathematics and the sciences, I have always been attracted to evidence-based planning. Data, analytics and the translation of evidence on the ground into planning frameworks helps inform policy-making. But over the years, as I worked more closely with Penang’s vibrant civil society, I learned the importance of the people participatory process. Science alone does not lead to successful translation of policy into practice. You need to win hearts and minds.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif speaking at a special event on affordable housing and ending homelessness. Featured Photo Credit: UN-Habitat.