Making our cities sustainable in the fight against climate change
Ondiek Andrew

Editor's note: This is a letter from Ondiek Andrew, a medical student from Peking University, sharing his thoughts on Glasgow COP-26 climate summit.

China is a nation of city dwellers. As of 2020, its urban population was 902 million, which is 63.89 percent of the 1.41 billion people, and the number has been rising since 1980 when the World Bank estimated that only 19.4 percent of Chinese people lived in urban areas.

With the continued growth of per capita income in Chinese households, these statistics are expected to keep on growing tremendously. It is projected that by the year 2050, the urban population in China will be 1.09 billion. This calls for meticulous planning and management to ensure that a city or town is suitable to live in going by the UN reports that cities account for 60 to 80 percent of energy consumption and 75 percent of carbon emissions. So, the big question is not how many people can reside in an urban area, but how we can build sustainable and livable cities that have green spaces to reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions and enhance air quality, including strategies for mitigation of climate change effects.

At the heart of every city across the globe is its transportation system. Having a safe and reliable transport system is fundamental to economic growth, yet, it is one of the sectors that majorly contributes to carbon dioxide emissions. The environmental footprints of fuel-driven cars and other petroleum-dependent modes of transportation are quite alarming and it is a threat to economic growth and sustainable living in cities. In a sustainable city model, the use of electric vehicles that produce zero emission and hybrid vehicles that could cut emissions by half is the way to go. This is being taken seriously across China where the electric vehicle (EV) market is booming and cities like Shanghai are giving free license plates to new EV owners. More EVs on the road are a step in the right direction; public transport buses and taxis around Shanghai are also experiencing electric frenzy.

Besides the vehicles, incorporating sidewalks and bicycle lanes in the city planning encourages the inhabitants to either walk or ride within the city, thus reducing traffic congestion and improving health and wellness. Riding bicycles has been a trend in China for decades and as the other parts of the world try to introduce the system, Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai prides in riding a bike from high school students to university professors. So common and efficient are the bicycles that they are public and just require an app and a monthly subscription of as low as $2 to get you going.

The inclusion of green spaces is at the center of developing a sustainable city henceforth. Parks and gardens go a long way in making a city livable and residents can get a green place to relax and walk freely. In Shanghai, more green spaces are being set aside for recreational purposes and the old ones are either expanded or renovated. Trees line almost all streets and residential districts of these metropolises forming a mini forest and helping to improve the quality of air.

Making a city sustainable involves a wide range of reforms that go beyond investing in mass transport systems like subways and having green spaces. Waste management and recycling are essential parts of the equation including initiatives like reducing food wastage that was rolled out across China last year have a huge impact on making our environment clean. In the era of the unprecedented effects of climate change, cities from New York to Berlin and cities in Henan in central China have been caught up in floods during the summer rains. By nature of design urban centers are prone to flooding because the streets, buildings and pavements are impervious, so rainwater just flows on the surface. As a way of mitigating and adapting to flooding in cities, upgrading sewer systems and building a storm water network. This is more urgent and practical since the old infrastructure cannot serve in the new paradigm where the environment is changing fast.

Changing our cities to be futurists is an admirable goal, but it requires a pull of resources, sustained effort, commitment and positive willpower.

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