The New Urban Agenda and the Important Role of Cities in Achieving Climate Goals

Dhaka, Bangladesh Source: UN Phto/Kibae Park

Dhaka, Bangladesh Source: UN Photo/Kibae Park

On October 20th, 167 countries adopted the New Urban Agenda, a document setting global standards for achieving sustainable urban development. The document was adopted at the close of the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, or Habitat III. The New Urban Agenda calls for equal opportunities, cleaner cities, carbon emission reductions, respect for the rights of migrants and refugees, improved stakeholder connectivity, and accessible green public spaces. Joan Clos, UN-Habitat Executive Director and Habitat III Secretary-General, described the agenda as a “vision for a better and greener urban future, where everyone has access to the benefits of urbanization.” Through the document, city leaders have committed to increase renewable energy, provide greener public transportation, and sustainably manage their natural resources.

Why does sustainable urban development matter? When Habitat I convened in 1976 just over one third of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, half the world’s population (3.5 billion people) live in cities, a figure that is expected to grow to 70% by 2050. Climate change poses a threat to human health and well-being as well as to urban economic and social infrastructures. Additionally, while the world’s cities occupy just 3% of the Earth’s land, they account for 60-80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions. Rapid urbanization also poses immediate environmental threats by compromising fresh water supplies, sewage systems, living environments, and public health. In light of these risks, cities must leverage urban planning principles in order to develop sustainably.

The New Urban Agenda seeks to bolster international efforts to address the impacts of climate change and to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cities play a key role in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, and as such they will be essential to help countries reach targets set forth in the Paris Agreement. As the first Habitat meeting since the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the ratification of the Paris Agreement, climate change was a major concern. Ban Ki-moon, in his opening statements, noted the profound effects urban pollution and urban consumption have on the environment. He stressed the need to transform towns and cities through better urban governance, as well as through planning and design, as ways to transform the world. Likewise, the threat of climate change and the need for mitigation and adaptation measures is woven throughout The New Urban Agenda. The agenda calls for measures to reduce disaster risk, build resilience and responsiveness to natural and man-made hazards, and foster mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Additionally, it supports access to funds, including the Green Climate Fund, the Global Environment Facility, and the Adaptation Fund.

The New Urban Agenda is not without its critics. Criticisms included concerns that the agenda guidelines are too vague and aspirational for cities to implement, that current financing is insufficient to effectively support agenda standards, and that there are not enough mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing progress. Critics also worried that the document does not reflect all voices within the global community. It appears UN-Habitat attempted to address this concern by hosting Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador. It was the first meeting to be held in the global south, which was significant considering the disproportionate impacts climate change has on developing countries in this region and that an estimated 95% of the world’s urban expansion will occur in the developing world. There have also been concerns that the agenda is weakly interlinked with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, as it does not directly link any standards to specific targets in either document.

It seems unclear what kind of impact the New Urban Agenda will have on addressing climate change in the coming decades. However, with the momentum of international efforts, including the Sustainable Development Goals, the ratification of the Paris Agreement, and the recent developments under the Montreal Protocol, the New Urban Agenda could provide enough motivation for city leaders to put the environment on their agendas. With the right support, cities could be a driving force in helping the world achieve global climate goals.