The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cost about $1 trillion—at the very least. However, the good news is that COVID-19 brought with it a dramatic global reduction in CO2 emissions. In early April, daily CO2 emissions dropped 17% when compared with levels from 2019. Research suggests this may be just a temporary drop if we rush back to our old, familiar, gas-guzzling habits. We need to actively prevent this from happening.
The importance of the IUC Programme
Recent work in North America by the European Union’s International Urban Cooperation (IUC) Programme demonstrates how innovation and knowledge transfer can change our world for the better. One of the program’s key objectives focuses on local and regional action and the transforming power of sustainable urban development.
The IUC Programme encourages cities to exchange knowledge and share best practices that can help them address local challenges. Many of these ideas can help to reactivate the global economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, preserving the benefits of current low-level emissions while spreading pragmatic progress by reshaping cities along sustainable principles. The IUC Programme promotes international cooperation both within cities and their wider regions. It already wields a significant influence, operating as it does on a global footing with projects currently running in 18 countries across Asia, the Americas, and Australia.
Although the IUC Programme is on a big scale, it upholds an important focus on smaller but essential details:
- It respects the unique nature of each city, with local communities and regional representatives bringing change through partnership.
- It encourages local governments to think innovatively and to use best practices from around the globe to adapt and develop local solutions.
Bringing cities together
At the heart of this approach are city-to-city pairings. Each participating city from the beneficiary country in the program is paired with a European city that has similar characteristics and problems. These pairings create space for local governments to exchange best practices and encourage them to tailor their responses through dialogue with local communities.
Peer-to-peer collaboration has proved to be one of the effective models for supporting urban development around the globe. One reason for this is its focus on action. Global thinking and collaboration allow local governments to fast track findings about the real nature of challenges in their urban spaces, and how these challenges can be fixed through appropriate solutions that are relevant to the local context. As opposed to a central government, local governments know their communities intimately—so it’s a short step from talking policy to delivering solutions.
The IUC Programme provides cities with the opportunity to organize learning exchanges and participate in events that foster knowledge sharing. It also provides a structure for cities to investigate the challenges they face. Funding and technical assistance help cities prepare their respective local action plans and realize their vision.
To deliver this, the EU has sought assistance from consultants with a proven background in international development and cooperation, and urban planning and climate action. With the IUC North America Programme in particular, there’s an axis of expertise where two key elements meet:
Supporting sustainable urban development and planning practices.
Supporting cities and regions to plan for sustainability and prepare their climate action strategies.
Harnessing the potential benefits of cities
Why are cities seen as the best places to bring about fundamental change?
Migration from rural regions to cities isn’t new, but in recent decades this shift has become more pronounced, so much so that some 70% of the world’s population now lives in cities. Projections suggest that population growth in rural areas has all but stopped, while cities are set to grow exponentially.
Already, cities the likes of Seoul, Accra, New York, Mexico City, and London have become home to a population of some 20 million people. Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, is home to 37 million people. Megacities of over 10 million people are on the rise, and by 2030 there are likely to be over 40 cities of that size, mainly within developing regions. By 2050, the global urban population will increase by 2.5 billion people, with 90% of this growth occurring in Asia and Africa.
The huge growth of cities—and their popularity—demonstrates that they wield a unique power over how life is lived, organized, and sustained. Cities are the engine houses of economic prosperity (more than 80 of global GDP is generated in cities). Cities have the potential to benefit (or damage) everything from what kind of buildings are erected to how energy is derived, to how we protect or pollute the wider environment.
Cities left to spread without checks or bounds—instead of remaining well-organized, high-density areas of population—tend to grow outwards. The resulting low-density urban sprawl places great stress on agricultural and forested land. Without intervention, this trend could lead to the urbanization of more than 3 million square kilometers by 2050. This pressure on space brings an additional burden on finite resources.
Local government planners and policy makers need to shape how cities are organized to maximize benefits and minimize negative impacts. Cities with large populations produce substantial amounts of emissions, solid waste, and pollution. Large populations generate overcrowding, poor housing, over-dominating transport, and fossil-fuel derived manufacturing. Therefore, they exert a great impact on the health and wellbeing of residents.
Sustainability is at the heart of EU urban policy-making
Helping to promote sustainable solutions for problems in urban areas can ensure beneficial outcomes are encouraged.
This is where best practice programs such as the IUC Programme can be invaluable. They can help influence and support cities towards bringing about the 17 social development goals (SDGs), including SDG 11, which hopes to make urban sites “inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” by 2030.
The goal of the IUC Programme is to strengthen the cooperation between the EU and North America in regards to sustainable urban development and regional/local climate change action.
Working on sustainable urban development at the local level implies looking at all three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental. Each urban area is distinct and needs to develop in a sustainable, inclusive way that is appropriate to its unique situation. This is vital to supporting local growth. So best practices need to respond to local needs, build on local strengths and assets, and match the capacity of a given community.
Local problem solving can include a wide range of approaches (e.g., investment plans to support urban mobility, online tools to enable greater participation in policy-making processes, policy measures aimed at encouraging start-ups). Participating cities are encouraged to explore the best approaches and solutions developed by their counterparts and develop solutions that work for them. Cities then develop strategies and pilot projects to turn these ideas into action.
Building on 30 years of tradition
The IUC Programme and its work in North America owes some of its success to being part of a 30-year tradition of linking sustainable development and cities. For instance, the smart city movement and its focus on smart technologies and data-driven solutions is transforming the way cities manage resources and address their challenges. There are also other EU-funded, city-focused projects which the IUC programme is building on:
- World Cities project. This program, implemented from 2015 to 2018, promoted the exchange of experience and best practices between EU and non-EU countries on urban innovation, urban-rural partnerships, and cross-border cooperation.
- URBACT. This program, started in 2005, aims to foster sustainable integrated urban development and develop solutions to common urban challenges in cities across Europe.
The IUC programme also supports and complements global and regional initiatives promoting sustainable urbanization:
- Habitat III. Hosted in 2016 by Ecuador, the third in a series of conferences run every 20 years examined pressing issues such as migration, the affordability of houses, sustainable economic growth, and the environment in order to produce an action-focused document that set standards of achievement. The New Urban Agenda 2016-2036 was launched during Habitat III
- EU Green Deal. Launched in 2019, the EU Green Deal aims to bring EU policies under one unified system to promote sustainable and climate-friendly technologies that promote resource-efficient and competitive development.
Opportunities for resiliency, prosperity
The outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic has been largely negative, but there are some unobtrusive positives. One of these is the opportunity to reset our future so we can shape it to be more sustainable, fair, and equal. With the current marked decline in CO2 emissions, we have even more of an incentive to use this moment to help us meet industry, country, and global targets to become carbon neutral by 2050.
If we take our lead from existing programs focused on transforming cities, we won’t need to work in the dark. Not only are these programs already in place and becoming more familiar, but the IUC programme is already encouraging decision makers to work together and plan for a more prosperous, resilient future.