By Milag San Jose-Ballesteros, Regional Director for East, Southeast Asia and Oceania, C40 Cities Leadership Group
As the world hurtles toward environmental collapse, the impacts of climate change are being acutely felt in cities, particularly in Asia. The region is home to cities with the greatest exposure to extreme weather events such as floods, rising sea levels and rapid land subsidence. Jakarta, the world’s fastest sinking city, is a prime example. Coastal cities such as Manila, Tianjin and Shanghai are also in mortal danger of facing a similar reality.
Many of these cities are also the key drivers of climate change. With Asia urbanising at a faster pace than any other region, urban centres are becoming major greenhouse gas emitters and energy consumers, accounting for 75% of the world’s energy consumption and over 70% of energy related greenhouse gas emissions. The intensification of extreme weather events induced by climate change promises to push these cities’ infrastructures beyond their current capacities. In other words, cities that fail to prioritise sustainable development will contribute to their own demise
A narrow window for change
Recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have delivered sobering news: The increase in commitments in the lead up to COP26 and now COP27, while hopeful, is not enough. To secure our collective futures, we must accelerate climate action and accountability on progress towards meeting the targets set at COP26.
Despite Asia being one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of the climate crisis, there is potential to progress transformative measures through strong collaborations with local communities, industry, experts, and the support of national governments.
The pandemic has also presented a unique opportunity for a green and just recovery. If done right, this can create more jobs in urban centres and deliver greater economic and health benefits while delivering reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Asian cities as key sites of transformation
Given their technological capacity and critical mass of emission, cities are key to delivering climate targets and are well placed to take impactful measures.
Jakarta, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City are among C40 cities that are decarbonising by transforming the way people move. In the past month, Jakarta began trialling 30 electric buses in the TransJakarta network, with a view to fully electrify its fleet by 2030. Similar efforts have been undertaken by Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, in addition to plans for a public bicycle service in Hanoi.
In terms of minimising commercial energy use, Tokyo has made great strides since it introduced a mandatory scheme for building energy efficiency in 2010. In 2019, the city achieved emission reduction of 21.9 million tonnes—a 27% reduction from base year emissions. Further reductions in line with Tokyo’s 2030 goals are expected as the measures become progressively stringent.
Across the strait, Seoul is roaring full steam ahead with its ambitious project “Solar City Seoul”, which aims to power 1 million households and all government buildings with solar energy. It continues to grow its solar capacity through an array of initiatives to make solar panel installation more affordable and accessible.
No city is too small to play its part. Singapore has ramped up the installation of solar panels on HDB rooftops and managed to build one of the world’s largest inland floating solar farms. It now has stepped up its ambitions to achieve net-zero emissions by or around the mid-century mark, and plans to raise carbon taxes, which will place Singapore closer to international standards.
Boosting climate resilience
From maintaining the resilience of biodiversity and ecosystems, to cultivating urban gardens to achieve food security, cities are waking up to the fact that they must take integrated action to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
In Chennai, efforts are underway to nurse the polluted Lake Sembakkam back to health. The pilot project will not only safeguard the health of surrounding lakes and local communities but inform other wetland restoration efforts across India.
Meanwhile, Singapore, already internationally known as a Garden City, is on its way to plant a million more trees by 2030. The added foliage is expected to improve air quality and cool temperatures, while providing more communal green spaces that enhance community well-being.
Seizing opportunities for collaboration
Initiatives like these would not have been possible without investment in sustainable infrastructure. This infrastructure is necessary for us to make any progress in tackling the climate crisis and increasing climate resilience. There has been an increase in targets, initiatives and commitments to reach net zero, but more investment in cities—particularly in Asia—is needed to finance the development of sustainable urban infrastructure for cities to meet net-zero targets.
Urban infrastructure systems in the energy, transport, telecommunications, water and wastewater, solid waste, buildings and food sectors are necessary for any society to thrive and they are all highly interdependent—meaning if one system fails, it can cause a cascading effect of disruptions across multiple sectors—as the recent IPCC report emphasised.
The sheer scale of the climate change problem requires deep cross-sectoral collaboration. To secure the resources needed to increase the resilience of critical infrastructure, industry and government can seize opportunities like the Clean Environment Summit Singapore (CESG) to explore partnerships, align with business and solutions providers, and uncover imaginative solutions that can address the challenges urban centres face in the race to net zero.
Asian cities are on the frontlines and are best placed to act now, and there needs to be accountability on progress made towards meeting the targets. When government and industry leaders convene at CESG this month, the goal will be to build sustainable and climate resilient cities–ones that we can be proud to leave behind for our children and generations to come.
Milag San Jose-Ballesteros is moderating at CESG 2022 at the Clean Environment Leaders Summit. CESG will be held in conjunction with Singapore International Water Week on 17-21 April 2022. It will feature distinguished speakers like Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, Singapore, and Ms Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary, UN-ESCAP. Join us at CESG 2022 to identify, develop and share practical and scalable solutions to address environmental challenges, including those caused by climate change.