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The writer is a professor at the Center on Migration, Politics and Society at the University of Oxford.
Most of the global systems that support life on Earth – from climate to freshwater and oceans, to biodiversity and biogeochemistry – are in crisis. There is one thing that ties it all together: urbanization.
Urban growth is driving environmental changes on an unprecedented scale. The data on this is clear: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2020, urban areas collectively contributed about three-quarters of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.
Addressing such a gigantic and decentralized problem presents enormous challenges, but the fundamental starting point must be to present the science to policymakers. In a forthcoming paper in Science, our team of researchers from the Peak Urban project – an international collaboration between universities in Oxford, Bristol, China, Colombia, India and South Africa – made the case creating a body to do just that: a new urban science advisory system that will work in tandem with the United Nations General Assembly.
It doesn’t have to be a political giant like the UN IPCC, which – while remarkably powerful in many ways – has become a vast and expensive bureaucracy. Our proposed body would be much smaller.
But we have to create it now.
Urban areas could more than triple between 2015 and 2050, and the construction of new cities will require large quantities of raw materials such as sand, metals and wood; the acquisition of which will transform ecosystems around the world. If humanity continues to build cities in the same way it has over the last century – low density, high energy and material consumption – it will need more raw materials than what the planet can sustainably provide. And this only to build the cities of tomorrow, not even to supply them with electricity.
Globally, urban land expansion is a leading driver of habitat and biodiversity loss. Increasing fragmentation of remaining non-urban land interrupts wildlife and ecological zones and increases the risk of fire, pests and disease. And climate migrants in the Global South move from rural areas to big cities far more often than cross international borders.
Emerging threats may even arise as trade-offs between our efforts to mitigate environmental challenges with energy-efficient technologies, such as LEDs, which contribute to light pollution and negatively impact nocturnal species.
Our proposal for a new global urban science advisory system would prevent the urban challenge from being rendered invisible in current thinking about the climate crisis. To ensure the management of this body, we suggest following the successful structure of the Committee for Development Policy which advises the UN Economic and Social Council and which, although composed of only 24 people, has provided valuable advice since 1965 The committees are appointed in a personal capacity by the UN Secretary-General and serve for a period of three years.
Academic and political circles have too often failed to associate science with urban management. We may know the cumulative impacts of cities on the environment, but we need to dig deeper to understand what is really happening in these cities to make them the primary cause of our planetary crisis. The new body should combine the arithmetic knowledge of complex systems with the practical knowledge of governance reform – and connect the people who work on cities with those who manage them, thereby generating new thinking about system change between international political networks and the cities in question.
The IPCC has already commissioned a special report on climate change and cities by 2024. This is not enough. Now is the time for international political systems to combine climate science with urban expertise to develop solutions to the civilizational threats of the 21st century.