Up and Out: Addressing Cities and Climate Change

The opening plenary of the Conference of Parties 21 (COP21) to address Climate Change began with a call from French President Francois Hollande, who believes this conference should produce a comprehensive, binding legal document on Climate Change. This document, if approved by the UN General Assembly, would bind all signatories to its carbon reduction targets, and place emphasis on renewable energy, among other climate saving measures. But in aiming for an expansive, comprehensive agreement, it may miss the mark, not carrying the weight of specificity to tackle the problems it hopes to address. Such a strategy also risks the plan being too broad, as to encourage resistance from the participants alike, just as India and China did at the Kyoto Summit in 1992. Bill McKibben, writing for Foreign Policy Magazine, claims that a more focused and narrowly tailored agreement will have a better chance to gain UN General Assembly approval and ratification by a majority of UN member states.


Such a proposal should be aimed at a critical part of addressing climate change: Megacities. Many people think that megacities exist only in the developing world. If you look closely however, 10 of 29 exist in developed states. Yet, the observers are right when taking into account that the largest population growth is in the developing world, which also has the largest amount of internal migration, from rural farmlands to the cities. World-wide, the projected number of people living in cities will be 3.9 billion, many of them situated in the Global South and East. This growth is expanding the carbon footprint, and accelerating anthropogenic climate change. This is a keystone policy issue for negotiators, not only because it affects much of our consumption patterns, including the use of land, energy, and water, but because the legal issue of property rights is a crucial factor in resource management and climate change policy.

Moving to New Heights, Literally

The biggest driver in the rise of megacities (and urbanization overall) is increased internal migration and a fall in mortality rates as modern medicine become more available. In history, the first great migration to the cities happened in the early 19th century, when people began moving to the cities in search of opportunity afforded by the Industrial Revolution. From Western Europe across the Atlantic to the United States (and to Japan after 1868), the allure of great cities gave a chance to many people to finally enjoy what we know today as the middle class lifestyle, enough disposable income to become stable consumers in a consumer economy. The same event  is happening in Africa, Latin America, and the Asia, in what the UN Population Fund called the “Second Great Migration” in its 2007 Report on International Migration.  Since 1951, the population of developing states have rapidly increased from 220 million living in cities to 2.84 billion in 2000.  Rural populations have plummeted, as people moved to the growing urban centers, chasing jobs in places where investments are higher. With Globalization making pushing cities to grow faster as investors set up factories and services throughout the developing world, these megacities will soon represent more than half of the global GDP by 2030. Unlike the first major migration however, this movement of people is taking place at unprecedented speeds and in absence of a counter migration to other parts of the world (ex. English migrations to the newly discovered Americas), placing huge pressures on cities to accommodate.

That’s My Property!

A city’s carbon footprint is most obvious when looking at the amount of land a city occupies or consumes, when considering development of the urban center, and surrounding communities. In fact, according to Solly Andrews of New York University’s Stern Urbanization Project estimated that cities will not occupy more than 2% of the total land on the Earth. This remarkable concentration of people has only been a recent phenomenon since the beginning of the 19th century, as explained by Vance Kite from TED-Ed. Advances in technology, especially in infrastructural development made it possible to trade space for density. The major achievement of this tradeoff is that urban centers have given social and economic opportunities to residents that were unavailable in rural areas, providing upward mobility never before imagined in human civilization.

Furthermore, negotiators need to remember that peri-urbanization is a major challenge for urban growth. Peri-urbanization describes urban sprawl where cities or large towns grow on the periphery of the city, but leaving large areas of land between them. Rent controls and poor planning often results in this kind of urban expansion, creating, according to the Journal of Urban Affairs,  new opportunities for aspiring middle class citizens. The challenge for planners and policymakers is to harness this economy-driven growth through a variety of policy corrections, including rent controls, tax incentives, affordable housing, and enforceable zoning practices. The ability to control the urban footprint at its root is a heartfelt emphasis on real estate incentives and controls, and strengthened commitment to expanding property rights in developing and transitioning economies. Without property rights, no agreement on climate change in regards to land use can succeed at the regional and local level.

A Cocktail Solution for Climate Change

For such a historical meeting, a commitment to managing urbanization and strengthening global property rights lays an important foundation for addressing future issues in climate management policy. Furthermore, policymakers can achieve the following results without an expansive climate change agreement, tackling many issues at once. We encourage you to consider these solutions, but also consider what others are possible when looking at problems in the city’s expanding carbon footprint.

  1. First, global migration patterns indicate growth in urban areas, as internal migrants move from the countryside to expanding urban centers. This is common specifically in developing nations with transitioning economies, where people look to the city for new opportunities for a new life and economic stability. So with the majority of the population living in less than 5% of the planet, the human carbon footprint will become more concentrated. The agreement should  support countries assisting internal migrants, so that they can be accommodated according to principles of human rights and integrate them into productive economic behaviors.
  2. Second, property rights are the bedrock of not only addressing peri-urbanization, but for democratic growth in all countries. Without property rights provisions, national governments will be left to leverage the needed regulations to guarantee security of housing, speculation in real estate and commodities markets, and environmental externalities such as pollution of air and water.  The US Agency for International Development declared in 2011 that property rights are crucial to climate change negotiations. They are at the nexus of urbanization and climate change. The logistics of planning, managing, and maintaining megacities in the developing world are hindered when states weak in property rights, like Nigeria, cannot guarantee individual rights to land or real estate ownership, or security to the profits of natural resources that fuel economic growth.And it cannot
  3. Third, cities need a plethora of resources to maintain current urban lifestyles among the top ten most populous countries, which expands the urban footprint even as we use less land. Every urban dweller consumes a combination and magnitude of food, water, electricity, and raw materials brought over from outside. With Narenda Modi of India looking for strong language on renewable energy, it’s targeting the people who will most likely consume the most resources. Infrastructure investment is a necessity,, as the economies of these megacities will have to retool for new energy availability, especially those in Africa, who have not enjoyed the same economic prosperity that developing and transition economies had since the Industrial Revolution. As McKidden suggests, “developing nations will leapfrog past the ‘fossil fuel’ age or at least demonstrate how it can be done.”

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Antonio says:

    The problem with the current environmental movement is that the only focus is on CO2 reduction, which is very important. One cannot oversimplify the importance of cutting down on CO2 and other greenhouse gases. However, the drive to cut emissions falls quite short of the real need to develop cities entirely different than the way we do today. During the 1939-40 World Fair, architect and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes debuted his model city of the future called Futurama. Futurama’s design embodied the motto “ever wider highways and ever taller buildings.” Elements of Bel Geddes designs can be seen in cities like LA, Dallas and Atlanta. But these design elements, which might stand as harmless testaments to man’s ingenuity in the abstract world, do in fact cause real environmental destruction. The super highways of Bel Geddes dreams are now choked with cars and trucks polluting the air, the connectivity of highways lead to suburban sprawl claiming forestry and wild life habitats, and heat island effects turn weak low pressure systems into moderate to serve storms. In Dallas a new high way is under construction called the LBJ I 65 Express. It is a double decker highway meant to reduce traffic congestion– ever wider highways. Cutting down on CO2 wouldn’t change any of these issues. So yes, we need to focus on sustainable energy production for future cities, but these cities cannot develop the way American cities have or Chinese cities.


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