Cities and towns are at the forefront of climate change. Not only do they produce more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, they are also highly vulnerable to its impacts.
A recent study carried out by the UN-Habitat estimates that over half of the world’s population now resides in cities – that is, 54 percent of the global population or four billion people – and this urbanisation trend is further increasing. Building sustainable and climate-compatible cities is therefore vital to curb emissions and build resilience – not only for the residents of various cities but also for those who live beyond the city limits.
“Global average temperatures are rising and this effect is more pronounced in cities,” says Ishrat Ali, the joint secretary at the Ministry of Climate Change. “Heatwaves, induced by climate change, are becoming more frequent and intense and exacerbating the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect,” he adds. The UHI effect is further enhanced by waste heat generated from vehicle combustion engines, air conditioners and industries. This is particularly evident in Karachi and Lahore where the temperature in the congested areas of the business district can be as much as two degrees centigrade higher than the surrounding rural areas.
Climate change is not just changing average temperatures but also impacting precipitation patterns. Several cities in Asia, including Pakistan, have seen an increase in rainfall over the last two decades. The floods of 2010 were one of the worst that the country has witnessed. They caused losses worth $10 billion to the national exchequer.
In urban areas, floods not only damage lives and infrastructure but also hamper mobility. Stagnant water breeds mosquitoes, flies and diseases. The cities of low-income, developing countries that are already plagued by the problems of overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure and poor sanitation are worst-hit. The recent monsoon rains in Karachi, which left many parts of the city in knee-deep waters, are a testament to the fact that even large cities in Pakistan are ill-equipped to deal with increased rainfall that is induced by climate change.
Adapting to the ill-effects of climate change is, therefore, critical for Pakistan’s developing economy. The government is in the process of developing a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) to create a framework of action to build climate resilience. Adaptive measures proposed in the NAP include water resource management, building climate-resilient infrastructure, the better management of transport operations and energy transmissions as well as innovations in urban planning. According to a study commissioned by the Ministry of Climate Change, Pakistan’s adaptation needs range between seven billion and $14 billion per annum. This indicates the huge risks that are at play.
Marcus Mayr, urban development specialist - cities and climate change at the UN-Habitat based in Nairobi, explains the steps that Pakistani cities can take to adapt to ward off the effects of climate change. “These include building disaster-resilient infrastructures, improving drainage and storm water collection structures, constructing flood protection embankments, developing green zones and relocating vulnerable groups living in hazardous areas of the city”.
While adapting to climate change is vital, it is important for Pakistan to reduce its greenhouse gases in line with international commitments. Pakistan is a signatory to the Paris agreement and has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions in the energy and agriculture sector – the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the country. For this, concerted actions and initiatives in urban areas and cities are imperative. This is because an estimated 38 percent of the country’s population resides in urban areas and, like the world over, the urbanisation trend is increasing.
Irfan Tariq, the director-general of the Ministry of Climate Change, recommends some measures that cities in Pakistan can take to reduce their carbon footprint. These include “installing of solar water heaters, adding adequate insulation in homes, double glazing windows, improving architectural design as well as encouraging energy efficiency measures”. “In addition, low carbon measures in the transport sector ,such as, incentivising the use of public and non-motorized transport, and reducing private vehicle use, can substantially reduce emissions,” he adds. The government is currently working on several public transport initiatives such as the somewhat controversial Orange Line, the Green Line in Karachi and the recently-completed metro system in Islamabad and these are steps in the right direction to promote public transport.
There are several examples of cities striving to become carbon-neutral. Saerbeck is a small town in Germany with only 7,200 residents. In 2008, the town adopted a resolution to switch the energy supply of the whole municipality to renewable energy sources. Today, Saerbeck produces more than 300 percent of its energy requirements for homes, businesses and public spaces using green energy sources and sells the surplus to the national grid. Similarly, the Forest City Liuzhou in China, which will be completed in 2020, will have more trees than people with a net-zero carbon output. The city design integrates plants and trees into its construction and a hundred different species of plants will be grown on balconies, roofs and along the river. In the UAE, the under-construction green city of Masdar has been designed to have no net carbon emissions, zero waste and will be fully-powered by renewable energy.
It is cities like these that provide an inspiration and blueprint for other cities to follow suit and ‘mainstream’ climate change into urban planning. In view of Pakistan’s high vulnerability to climate change, the focus of its cities is likely to remain on adapting to the physical and health impacts of climate change. However, moving ahead, it is vital that the sectors of transport, industry, energy, and infrastructure design incorporate low-carbon measures to ensure that urban development in the country is both sustainable and climate compatible.
The writer works as an environmental consultant.