Dear mayors: Connect sustainable development to climate action

ShutterstockAgnes Kantaruk

Our SDGs Letter Project is a call to action. A little over a year ago, the U.N. adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which collectively represent millions of dreams and aspirations. GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, will publish 17 letters by Yale University students that highlight the ideas of youth regarding the 2030 developmental agenda. This series seeks to drive forward the collective will to translate the SDGs into reality.

Dear global mayors:

By 2050, more than 70 percent of the global population will live in your cities (PDF). The transition from rural to urban, expanding the services and capacity of your government, and building a future for the global population, is a fundamental worldwide shift that will define the problems and solutions in the 21st century. 

These relatively recent demographic changes represent the first time in human history that more people live in urban areas than in rural areas. These demographic changes of urban expansion are also now almost exclusively occurring in developing countries. These shifts necessitate a global framework for metrics and a solution.

To reflect these changing demographics and resource uses, in 2015 the United Nations adopted SDG 11 — Sustainable Cities and Communities. Cities create space for economic and social transitions, the expansion of knowledge and capacity. There are also real challenges, which are addressed by SDG 11. But this goal will not mean anything if global mayors do not take it seriously.

Cities make up less than 3 percent of Earth’s land area, but consume around 70 percent of global final energy and produce 75 percent of carbon emissions. And as cities continue growing over the next few decades, the infrastructure built and land use changes that will occur will lock cities into development patterns that will have far-reaching implications for mitigating climate change. Only with successful on-the-ground implementation of SDG 11 will we truly achieve the desired outcomes to mitigate climate change.

Decisions made today on land use, transportation infrastructure, energy supply, food systems, water access, urban green spaces, and mechanisms to foster social cohesion will have long-lasting implications for your city — which are hard to unravel once established.

That is why it is key to engage in long-term planning, build coalitions among business and non-governmental organizations, and do outreach to the community to ensure that sustainable urban development can occur. Following the metrics and guidance of SDG 11 will help orient your city with others to achieve social justice and harmony in a changing world.

This type of planning will be valuable to ensure that investments are made in the right projects. For example, cities should not build new housing stock along parts of the coastline that are vulnerable to storm surges and coastal flooding. Incorporating street trees and urban greenspace as part of urban planning will help buffer the urban heat island effect.

Forming regional partnerships will help build a resilient network of infrastructure, services, and emergency management assistance. Engaging in the planning process and participation in the implementation of SDG 11, particularly as cities grow and expand, will be critical to create resilient communities in the face of challenging issues, such as climate change.  

But it will be all for naught if global mayors do not show up and make this a priority in your administration. You have the power to change the development trajectory for your city, to make it into a sustainable, inclusive, socially just region. You have the power to build a better future for your neighbors. But this won’t happen if you ignore what decades of research are telling us about climate change —  not only the need to mitigate the drivers of climate change, but how we should adapt and be resilient to its impacts.

The first way that you can show up is by attending the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador later this month. World leaders will adopt a "New Urban Agenda" to outline best practices for urban sustainability, resilience and development.

This blueprint for development and inclusion will build on the progress that global mayors have agreed to through the Climate Summit for Local Leaders' participation in organizations such as ILocal Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), the C40 Climate Leadership Group, 100 Resilient Cities and the like. The "New Urban Agenda" will tie together SDG 11 and the Paris Agreement

UN Habitat III represents an opportunity for local leaders to learn, share and collaborate to develop strategies to tackle the worst global problems facing urban areas. Although the text is theoretical and aspirational, important connections and global discussions will occur. Sharing information and best practices will be key to build the sustainable cities and communities that SDG 11 so rightly prioritizes.

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