How climate change may puncture the great urban aspiration

Today, the symbol of progress is defined in term of urbanisation. The recent decades have seen fast growth of cities in human history.

Chennai_Airport during 2015 flood

A view of Chennai airport from an Indian Air Force chopper during the 2015 flood. Pic: Indian Air Force , Wikipedia

Istanbul is going to host the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit where world leaders will debate human sufferings in the backdrop of the much-touted global advancements.

The summit website says: “The world is witnessing the highest level of human suffering since the Second World War.

This is why, for the first time in the 70-year history of the United Nations, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has convened the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on 23 -24 May.”

Today, the symbol of progress is defined in term of urbanisation. The recent decades have seen fast growth of cities in human history, and it has been much faster in the South Asian region.

The average GDP per capita in the region grew by almost 56 percent during 2000–2012.

The region’s urban population grew by almost 130 million during 2000-2011 and is expected to grow by 250 million by 2030 when the world should have ended poverty if the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were to be met.

The SDGs will come for discussion in the World Humanitarian Summit. The summit will also discuss impacts of climate change because that has already emerged as the greatest hurdle in the way of achieving the SDGs.

While debating climate change, the summit must consider rigorous discussions on strategies to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

This is necessary to make growth models real ‘humanitarian’ and ‘sustainable.’ A casual approach in dealing with carbon dioxide emissions would not only offset the development paths but also puncture the already achieved goals.

Cities and sea rise: the tragic connection

Take for example the cities, termed as the ‘aspirations’ and ‘epitome of growth’ by current generation policy makers.

A just released report by UK-based charity Christian Aid shows the vulnerability of coastal cities to sea rise.

Millions of people living in world’s coastal cities are already under severe stress due to climate change’s impacts such as increased flooding, extreme weather, and storm surges.

This is going to increase because of two reasons. One, the coastal cities, especially in the least developed countries, are experiencing a population explosion as never before and two, the increased projection of sea level rise in these regions.

According to the report by the charity, 54 percent of the global population lived in cities in 2014 (up from 34 percent in 1960).

In absolute numbers, most of this urban population growth is concentrated in the less developed regions of the world.

It is estimated that by next year, the majority of people will be living in urban areas even in the least developed countries.

Studies cited in the report show that even under the lowest growth assumptions, between 2000 and 2030 the globally exposed population could rise by more than 50 percent – from 625 million to 880 million.

“By 2060, more than a billion people worldwide could be living in low-lying coastal zones. Most of these will be in Asia. The top five most exposed countries are from the region, with China and India topping the list,” it says.

Kolkata and Mumbai will top the list of world cities with the most exposed populations to coastal flooding, with 14 million and 11.4 million vulnerable people respectively.

Both these cities are home to a large number of poor people who will have to bear the maximum brunt of climate change thus upsetting the SDGs as envisaged for urban poor in the country.

The report then points out, “Ironically the three countries with the cities likely to suffer the most from coastal climate change are three of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

Today’s two biggest emitters, China, and the US, are set to take a financial hammering because of the value of exposed property, business, investment and other assets. India, currently fourth and rapidly increasing its carbon pollution, is likely to bear the brunt of the human cost”.

Reduce the use of coal

While narrating the achievements of his ministry during the last two years in power, India’s power minister Piyush Goyal recently told a TV channel that he has no plans to reduce the burning of coal in the power plants because India needs to grow with help of ‘cheap coal.’

India may not have contributed to the historical emissions of CO2, but it certainly cannot ignore the impacts of its current emissions.

The ‘cheap coal’ is already costing dearly to the country, its poor and the environment.

Well, action by India alone will not reduce the impact such as sea level rise in its coastal cities. However, India has to take drastic steps to urgently divest from coal and go for green energy solutions. The others too have to act, very fast.

The Istanbul summit must take note of it.

(Ranjan Panda is an Indian environmentalist, water and climate change expert. He can be contacted at [email protected]).

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