Cities are the solution, not the problem

Asia is one of the fastest urbanizing regions in the world: 60 percent of growth in urban areas is taking place in Asia. Cities are also a key source of carbon emissions: globally, cities account for 70 percent of of greenhouse gas emissions. However, cities are also at the forefront of measures for climate mitigation and adaptation.

According to Marks, cities in Asia hold the key to implementing climate change solutions. “Cities can play a key role in reducing emissions since they control transportation networks, building codes, and water and power lines,” he said.

He views this as particularly pressing in Asia, not only because the region is a large source of carbon emissions, but also because many countries and cities are some of the most vulnerable to climate change, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines and Viet Nam.

Urban governance is a huge challenge in an era of climate change. However, Marks is optimistic about the role of cities.

“City mayors are more directly accountable to their constituents and they face the voters more directly,” he said. “Cities are flexible and they can move more quickly than national governments can in terms of rolling out new projects and policies. They can also help set the agenda elsewhere and at the national level. Finally, cities can experiment on climate solutions.

“There are a number of ways that cities can quickly reduce their carbon footprints, particularly in encouraging urban density as one way for making cities greener and more walkable, and implementing nature-based solutions is also a way forward,” he added. “Some of these solutions are win-win because they don’t only reduce carbon emissions, but also make these cities more resilient to climate risks.”

Homes on stilts above river, Bangkok, Thailand

Homes on stilts above river, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Miltiadis Fragkidis / Unsplash .

“Disaster justice” in urban climate plans

While urban planners go about making cities more resilient to climate change, they often tend to redistribute climate risks by favouring certain areas or communities more than others.

Marks’ research into the 2011 floods in Thailand showed how state planners worked to preserve central Bangkok while letting the floods cover suburban areas for up to two months. He emphasized that city planners need to adopt a more egalitarian notion of “disaster justice” where the risks and burdens are shared more equitably.

Marks cautioned that climate policies can end up exacerbating or redistributing inequality.

“A good example is this notion of double injustice where within cities, poor people in Southeast Asia take the bus or ride motorbikes, live in smaller homes and use little or no air conditioning,” he said. “They live in the most vulnerable areas, they live along canals and railroad tracks. They are the ones who are most affected by flooding, or pollution from factories, and suffer from air pollution.

“This is a double injustice, both in terms of adaptation and mitigation at the city level. And so, when you think about climate response, how do you address this double injustice?” he asked.

“A lot of the time, it is about building urban climate resilience. But you need to unpack this, who benefits from these resilience projects? But also in terms of mitigation, who is responsible for reducing emissions? How can climate burdens be equitably shared?”

Ensuring equitable urban governance means that policymakers and practitioners must engage more with different actors, especially the most vulnerable, to listen to their experiences, vulnerabilities and priorities.

Marks believes that the solutions to ensure equitable resilience in urban climate governance lie in empowering local groups and communities.

“We need to think about how we can make this happen,” he said. “We need to think about bottom-up movements, which empower these groups to incorporate their voices into urban planning, and design policies which incorporate redistribution of disaster risks.”

This is an excerpt of a podcast conversation with Dr Danny Marks for the new SEI Asia podcast series “Environment and Policy in Asia”.