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Greening our cities

Luxembourg—As hubs of employment, trade and innovation, cities are the engines of our economic growth, accounting for over 80 percent of global GDP. By mid-century, more than 6 billion people—almost 70 percent of the world’s population—will live in urban areas, up from about 4 billion today.

Yet cities already use more than two-thirds of the world’s resources and energy, accounting for over 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. As cities continue to grow, so will these numbers. Between 2011 and 2013, China used more cement in cities development than the United States did during the entire 20th century.

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The future of our planet, then, depends on how we manage urban development. In addition to being the biggest contributors to climate change, cities are also among the most at risk, and thus have the most to gain from going green. With 90 percent of the world’s urban areas on coastlines and at risk from rising sea levels, there is significant work to be done to protect the bulk of the world’s population from these and other climate-related threats. Cities are where spending on climate action will have the biggest impact. Making cities more compact, connected and coordinated around green policies could yield economic savings of up to $17 trillion by 2050.

For starters, we must do far more to reduce energy consumption, harmful emissions and air pollution, not least by improving energy efficiency in urban areas. Given that urban infrastructure is hard to change quickly (and lasts a long time), the time for a new conversation about urbanization is now. Cities need to develop plans to reduce CO2 emissions, build resilience and involve all relevant sectors of the economy in the shift toward clean energy. Policymakers should be planning for adaptations to existing infrastructure and new long-term investments.

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Many cities around the world are already integrating climate goals into their urban-development plans. Copenhagen has emphasized increasing its buildings’ energy efficiency. Bangalore is investing in sustainable transport. And, among other good examples, Mexico City is focused on strengthening the resilience of its most vulnerable residents to extreme weather events.

More and more cities have come to realize that climate-friendly policies have immediate benefits in terms of both quality of life and economic growth. Green investment makes economic sense, because it tends to result in better municipal services, cleaner air and safer water. Indeed, solar energy is now often cheaper than fossil fuels, and plastic recycling—a key to cleaning up our oceans—is a source of steady jobs. But cities also need to go further, by recognizing the benefits of a circular economy that minimizes waste.

“The 15 circular steps for cities,” a guide from the European Investment Bank (EIB), shows that cities and their residents have much to gain—including a smaller carbon footprint—from reduced consumption and reuse of resources. Around the world, international development banks are providing cities with financing and technical assistance for climate-related projects. For the EIB, the priorities are energy efficiency, renewables and sustainable transport.

At the same time, governments need to introduce new regulations and offer bigger incentives to get projects off the ground, and to encourage more innovation among businesses. To that end, we need all stakeholders to be connected and on the same page. City networks such as C40 Cities, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy offer a good starting point.

Emma Navarro is vice president of the European Investment Bank. Nanda Jichkar is mayor of Nagpur, India, and a board member of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy.

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