Intermediate cities: a green and transformative post-COVID-19 recovery?

By Dražen Kučan, Sector Lead / Senior Urban and Energy Efficiency Specialist, Green Climate Fund

Guilty as charged: cities and urban populations are among the core drivers of anthropogenic climate change. Cities produce between 71% and 75% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions1. There needs to be a ‘paradigm shift towards low emission and climate-resilient development pathways’. A shift that can happen in developing countries by supporting and investing in high impact climate mitigation as well as resilience and adaptation initiatives.

While the paradigm shift is defined by the ‘degree to which the proposed activity can catalyse impact beyond one-off project or programme investment’, the reality is not so straightforward in the context of the urban sector. Urban areas are complex, multi-stakeholder environments that require holistic, structurally sound, sustainable solutions. They need transformative investments in energy efficient buildings; decarbonising urban energy systems; compact and resilient urban development (including investment in mass transit and non-motorised transit systems and vehicle electrification); grey to green urban infrastructure upgrading; the circular economy; and methane and emissions-free integrated waste management.     

Demand pressure on developing new urban infrastructure is high: new homes and infrastructure will have to be built at great speed for the approximately 2.5 billion new city dwellers expected by 2050. About 85% of new housing demand is projected to be in fast emerging economies (such as China) and in the majority of developing countries. Furthermore, of the 70 million new residents expected to move to pre-existing urban areas each year, the vast majority will live in intermediary cities, mostly in Africa and Asia. This adds to climate pressures, both in terms of accelerated emissions and enhanced vulnerabilities. 

The greatest challenge facing policymakers today is that they need to be visionary enough to be able to determine the right set of well sequenced and integrated planning, structuring and investment decisions, in order to ensure the alignment of this massive surge of urbanisation with green transformative growth, coupled with green jobs creation. Given that currently 18% of all global emissions come from just 100 cities, climate action in mega-cities and in large and rapidly growing small and medium size cities has the potential to meaningfully reduce carbon pollution. While mega and large cities constitute an immediate potential for reduction in emissions, small and medium size cities are vital to breaking dependency on high-carbon development as they grow to become large cities.

Large urban centres, often described as ‘megacities’ or urban agglomerations, that easily exceed the 4-5 million citizen threshold, could reduce at least 30% of GHG. This will require the right large-scale integrated energy efficient land use / transport strategy and interventions, essentially focusing on retrofitting their highly carbonised urban and energy infrastructure. However, urban climate efforts focusing solely on large cities may be restrictive in terms of achieving truly transformative impacts, as most of the world’s urban population lives in intermediary or secondary cities2 .

Intermediary cities are at the forefront of seeking transformative pathways. Indeed, they are usually bustling, champions of job growth and productivity from a low-cost base, and support the outsourcing of logistics and transit centres. They are, however, mired with environmental challenges and either rudimentary or decaying infrastructure. In other words, they are in dire need of breaking the path of dependence on highly carbonised urban infrastructure and economies. So how can intermediary cities address the massive surge in urbanisation, while also adhering to paradigm shifting pathways? Typical intervention would include, for example but not limited to, integrated urban and municipal planning inclusive of ecosystem service solutions, climate friendly cooling, heating and distributed energy technologies, (passive and resilient) building construction standards and transformative resilient infrastructure deliveries.  

In the pre-COVID-19 world, developing economies were less attached to ‘legacy-infrastructure’ and hence more open to adopting development incentives that combine climate priorities with boosting the employment impact of the green economy (which seeks to maximise resilience in the face of climate or other impacts, and to minimise emissions from supply chains and concentrated, high energy production).  Increasingly climate conscious intermediary cities of the developing world need to tackle a range of barriers across city types that limit the implementation of a paradigm shift, post COVID-19. For example, some of the barriers may include lack of upfront financing, lack of enabling policy frameworks, limited support for fostering new business models etc.

I am cautiously optimistic, as most urban areas, and especially nimble and usually fast-growing intermediary cities, are designed to enhance productivity, resilience, and innovation, while reducing the carbon intensity of their economic and social activities. If such efforts are well designed, nationally prioritised and properly sequenced, these will not only kick-start recovery and generate wider economic benefits, but also address market failures such as urban sprawl, congestion, as well as pollution and carbon emissions. Compact, connected, and coordinated cities could deliver up to 3.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year of savings over the next 15 years and reduce infrastructure capital requirements by over USD 3 trillion. To undertake its core mandate in relation to fostering paradigmatic shifts to address climate change, the Green Climate Fund, together with other stakeholders, including National Designated Authorities and delivery partners in developing countries, will continue to find ways and approaches to influence and, hopefully, in time, fundamentally alter the form and functioning of urban systems in the context of climate change.

1.Scope 1 emissions, not accounting for the total consumption-based carbon footprint under Scopes 2 and 3 of the Global Protocol for Community Scale GHG Emissions; see IEA, 2016.

2. The definitions of intermediate cities vary according to the geographic location, assuming anywhere between 0.5 and 4 million citizens in scale.