At the end of October 2021, in one of the biggest annual climate gatherings, COP26 aimed to secure global net-zero emissions by mid-century. This would be done through keeping the global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius, encouraging adaptation to protect communities and natural habitats, mobilising finance and accelerating actions through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society.
Notably, it intended to finalise the Paris Rulebook — detailed procedures operationalising the Paris Agreement. In the lead up, countries were asked to declare ambitious emission reductions for 2030. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, countries from the Asia Pacific face the uphill task of reducing carbon emissions while recovering economically in pursuit of national development. The region already emits more than half of the world’s greenhouse gases (GHGs) and most of the population lives in low-lying dense agglomerations.
While the macroeconomic relation of trade and financial markets with climate change is thoroughly analysed, its manifestation within the urban economies needs to be better understood. Asian cities face a triple challenge of protecting people from growing climate hazards while addressing local economic development issues for improved standards of living and abatement of their national GHGs. Can these cities stand up to the global climate challenge?
The answer lies in their contributions to national GHGs, the robustness of climate policies compared to their Paris Agreement’s nationally determined contributions and level of capabilities in combatting the climate crisis. A handful of cities in the region contribute considerably to national GHGs — 1 per cent of the land area holds 75 per cent of the global carbon footprint in China. In Australia, 55 per cent of the emissions are from its five largest cities. Indian cities emit two-thirds of the country’s national GHGs. Under business-as-usual, Asian cities would contribute to over half the rise in global GHGs over the next 20 years.
An assessment of the climate policies of 10 major Asia Pacific cities shows that their annualised carbon mitigation target differs considerably, from 1 per cent in Manila and Tokyo to 3.3 per cent in Seoul, well below their countries’ nationally determined contributions. Preparation for climate action also differs. The Asia Pacific Network-supported project on Integrated Climate Action Planning evaluated the climate action plan of 17 Asia Pacific cities with populations above five million with interesting findings:
While economic powerhouses like Sydney and Bengaluru have no mitigation plans, some cities overstretch them, like Tokyo since 2007. Some, including several Chinese cities, have short-sighted ones, lasting until 2020. Beijing, New Delhi, Tianjin, Shenzhen and Sydney failed to transparently demonstrate how current climate variability, risks and sectoral emissions are evaluated or projected to outline strategies.
Plans are also siloed and none are integrated. Singapore and Tokyo, cities which are prone to wide-ranging coastal hazards, had no adaptation plans. Melbourne has detached mitigation and adaptation plans with conflicting target years. Administrative set-ups vary extensively — including municipal corporations, metropolitan agencies and nationally administered areas and functional powers. None have a unified agency to tackle climate issues.
Asia Pacific cities fell short of achieving their national climate objectives. As leading economies, they are expected to commit to net-zero initiatives like many businesses, higher education institutions and cities have already. But most Asia Pacific cities operate within developing country political economies that prioritise growth over climate goals, carry a disproportionate burden of economic development for the entire nation and are subject to different levels of ‘threat perception’ of climate hazards specific to their contexts. Asia Pacific cities require a multi-pronged approach in standing up to the global climate challenge.
They must develop negotiated resilience strategies, assume a wartime footing to protect critical infrastructure and prepare for a more dangerous future. This would minimise economic losses in industry, business and productivity and enhance people’s quality of life.
Shifting rapidly to clean energy is key, as city-integrated renewable energy attunes with the growing urban-energy demand. This would also reduce air pollution and improve human health.
Cities must focus on spatial planning strategies, including infill development, compact cities, transit-oriented development and pedestrianisation. A human-centric engineering approach would generate income, improve urban efficiency, disaster resilience and liveability.
Cities must also promote circular economies with sustainable production and urban lifestyles, focusing on grassroots innovations, sharing food, energy and waste systems associated with cities. These transitions in the urban economy are beyond emissions reduction and will assist with emergency response and building resilience.
These tasks necessitate setting up urban climate agencies that operationalise Integrated Climate Action Planning approaches through interdisciplinary research and multi-scalar collaborations. The mechanism would bridge the science-policy gap and guide decisionmakers about mitigation scenarios and adaptation alternatives with evidence from global case studies.
Asia Pacific cities can harness multiple climate co-benefits like income generation, citizen health and energy security. This requires greater convergence of urban policies with global funds for mitigation and adaptation and direct techno-financial support for climate-sensitive development projects from national governments. Climate negotiations must prioritise a co-benefits approach and align international climate finance with COVID-19 recovery for the urban poor through low-carbon redevelopment and disaster-resilient cities. Indeed, it’s sink or swim for the Asia Pacific’s big cities in the war on climate change.
Mahendra Sethi is a Research Associate with ISARD and a Humboldt Guest Research Fellow at the Technical University of Berlin. He leads the project on the Integrated Climate Action Planning (ICLAP) 2050 Tool in Asia-Pacific Cities supported by Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research. He is the author of Climate Change & Urban Settlements (Routledge, 2017).
This work is first published in East Asia Forum and licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Licence.