Guest Article #21

Climate Neutral Cities

Over this past decade, the effects of climate change have revealed the many facets of this unprecedented challenge. What was initially understood to be a limited environmental challenge has now been shown to impact the lives and future of all of us, in many interlinked ways.

In this context, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) plays an important role within the United Nations system in addressing the challenge of climate change, in particular to ensure that the regional aspects and contributions are well reflected in the discussions preceding and following the upcoming climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.

UNECE has traditionally been engaged in activities that contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. They include areas such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport, and identifying more sustainable mobility patterns and developing sustainable energy policies based on renewable energy sources under the Global Energy Programme 21. UNECE also works for greener urban habitat and for preserving the natural environment, including in forestry, promoting sustainable production and consumption, through environmental performance reviews, as well as relevant multilateral environmental agreements to develop climate change adaptation policies (e.g. for transboundary water management).

UNECE is also addressing climate change in the context of the current economic and financial crises. The world has indeed experienced how these crises are closely interlinked with environmental and social problems. Promoting a green economy must thus be an indispensable part of any serious effort to counter the crises. To overcome the economic downturn affecting most of our member States, there is a need to advocate and promote investment in environmentally friendly solutions.

Cities have a strategic role to play here. Historically, cities are the places of innovation and progress. Just as cities have seen the birth of new societies and witnessed historic changes, we believe they can also be the cradle of an environmental revolution bringing sustainability and climate neutrality. Nonetheless, for now cities remain heavy polluters, consume most of our energy and resources, and continue to convert arable land and biodiversity into the urban landscape. No matter what measures are agreed to tackle environmental problems, cities should occupy the centre stage.

UNECE's work on energy efficiency in housing and reducing emissions in cities demonstrates that “Climate Neutral Cities” is not an oxymoron, but a crucial and indeed achievable goal. UNECE has been working to collect and share experiences and examples from various actors in the region of urban development plans to reduce emissions and environmental impacts of large urban areas; new transportation schemes to make urban mobility smarter and ways to increase biodiversity in cities; new sustainable settlements, energy efficiency renovation projects for existing housing stock, passive architecture, green buildings, and much more.

The commitment of UNECE to better urban performance is an important element of the Committee on Housing and Land Management's programme of work. In the last two years, the Committee has realized the key role it can play in contributing to global goals such as the reduction of emissions and energy efficiency, while continuing its long-standing efforts to promote better housing quality and to make urban planning more effective.

Indeed, the UNECE region is best placed to fulfil this challenge, given its member countries' long history and experience with urban planning. It also benefits from the presence of a housing stock that, although in desperate need of renovation, can serve as the basis of a transformation to green buildings.

UNECE is making the case for a renewed focus on the housing sector in the post-Kyoto agreement. The argument is straightforward and compelling. If the international community is to tackle climate change properly, it cannot ignore the potential emission reductions to be made in the building and residential sector, the highest savings achievable by 2020 according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There is a need to be ambitious and strive for a new era of architecture and urban planning, where building will no longer mean pollution, energy and land consumption, but rather climate neutrality and other environmental benefits. This is the chief message that should be heard in Copenhagen, to make sure that this sector's potential is fully recognized.