Sustainable development for a changing planet

From Lagos to Mumbai and Miami, cities across the globe are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and other weather-related impacts. These once-thriving coastal towns now bear the scars of an eroded coastline as homes and infrastructure succumb to encroaching waters.

Around the world, cities are in the race to adapt to a changing climate. Everywhere, soaring temperatures fuelled by human-made greenhouse gas emissions are disrupting the delicate balance of our climate systems. For many, this is already affecting their residents, infrastructure, and overall wellbeing.

Cities are among the greatest contributors to climate change, with activities such as transportation, buildings, energy and waste management acting as major sources of carbon emissions. At the same time, cities present opportunities for sustainable development, productivity and innovation. If well managed, they are the most viable solution to managing the impacts of climate change; if poorly managed, they can lead to increased carbon emissions – resulting in more climate change.

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What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development has been defined in a variety of ways, but its most commonly cited definition comes from Our Common Future, known as the Brundtland Report, and reads: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainability forms the cornerstone of today’s leading global framework for international cooperation – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These Global Goals don’t just support economic growth but also promote social inclusiveness and environmental protection. Together, the three dimensions of sustainability (economy, society and environment) present a balanced pathway to prosperity, ensuring all people on this planet can lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations Member States in 2015, with 169 targets to be met by 2030. These goals and targets are universal, meaning that they apply to all countries around the world. They aim to tackle global challenges including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice, and are all interconnected.

Yet, according to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023, all of the SDGs are seriously off-track at the halfway point towards the 2030 deadline. This alarming statistic emphasizes the need to take a closer look at our current achievements and gaps.

Climate and sustainable development

The research is clear: climate impacts on sustainable development are profound. Climate change is putting development achievements at risk, hitting vulnerable communities particularly hard. The risks associated with a given climate hazard depend on a country’s vulnerability and exposure. Escalating weather events are predicted to significantly increase ill health and premature deaths, as well as population exposure to heat-related morbidity and mortality.

At the same time, a country’s climate risks are determined by the development decisions it makes. For example, the global trend towards urbanization puts more people’s health at risk since the impacts of climate change may be aggravated in urban contexts. Air pollution in cities, to name but one, is a major health threat contributing to millions of premature deaths each year. If no action is taken, the consequences will continue to threaten urban safety, resilience and sustainability.

Building sustainable cities

This poses a practical question: How does climate-resilient development differ from traditional development strategies? How does it impact cities in particular? Greater effort is needed to convert “adaptation thinking” into a journey of long-term planning that meets the challenges posed by climate change.

Integrating urban weather, climate, water and environmental services, as well as effective governance at the local level, is essential to helping cities achieve Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These tailor-made weather services, combined with results-based city planning and infrastructure management, have the potential to improve cities’ climate resilience, with associated benefits for sustainable urban development, resulting in improved public health, safety and wellbeing for citizens.

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Five examples of sustainable development for cities

There are many promising examples of sustainable development around the world that help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change. These include:

  • Solar power: Solar panels are one of the most efficient ways to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. Highly adaptable, they can be installed on buildings of varying shapes and sizes and are more affordable than ever before.
  • Wind turbines: Wind is an abundant source of renewable energy – and it’s free! By harnessing wind power, cities worldwide have the potential to transform how they produce and consume energy in urban environments.
  • Green spaces: Cities can turn into “urban heat islands” during the summer months. Green spaces are great for cooling cities down and filtering air pollution, and are an essential feature of sustainable urban development.
  • Sustainable construction: Incorporating sustainable building practices in construction projects can significantly reduce their environmental impact. These include sustainable housing developments which utilize cleverly designed features, infrastructure and technology to minimize a building’s carbon footprint.
  • Efficient water fixtures: Simple water-saving fixtures (e.g. low-flow taps, dual flush toilets and toilet stops) help conserve water used for essential services, and in so doing reduce operating costs and enhance sustainability.

Why sustainable cities are key

These are just a few examples of sustainable development that have the potential to foster positive global change. Focused on the social dimension of sustainability, these efforts prioritize the creation of livable urban areas that promote wellbeing by meeting people’s needs in their living and working environments.

A true eco-city, then, is one that is designed to be self-sufficient and sustainable, with an emphasis on renewable energy sources, green transportation and natural habitats. Green spaces and supporting technology are embedded at the heart of the urban environment to reduce CO2 emissions, improve air quality and protect natural resources.

What is a sustainable housing development?

The importance of housing is integral to sustainable urban development because of its reliance on natural resources. Sustainable housing, as enshrined in Goal 11 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, aims to ensure that everyone has access to adequate, safe and affordable homes by 2030. These smartly designed homes offer comfortable, healthy and secure living environments using sustainable housing techniques that lower the owner’s carbon footprint, cut energy costs and promote active lifestyles.

Sustainable housing development has four main advantages:

  • Mitigating climate change: Sustainable housing reduces carbon emissions by incorporating energy-efficient technology, renewable energy sources and sustainable construction materials.
  • Conserving resources: Sustainable housing developments prioritize recycled and locally sourced materials, reducing the strain on natural resources.
  • Reducing energy consumption: By incorporating energy-efficient features like solar panels, better insulation, smart technologies, and passive heating and cooling techniques, sustainable homes can optimize energy performance, leading to lower utility bills.
  • Enhancing indoor air quality: Sustainable housing developments prioritize indoor air quality by using non-toxic building materials and promoting proper ventilation systems. This contributes to healthier living environments.

Standards for sustainable living

Building a sustainable city is a complex undertaking as each city has its own unique challenges. One common denominator can make the task much simpler – ISO standards. International Standards provide valuable guidance across all aspects of city life, from energy efficiency and intelligent transport, to air quality and waste management.

City leaders can effectively address the threat of climate change by incorporating standards into urban planning. Key standards such as ISO 50001 for energy management systems and ISO 52000 for managing the energy performance of buildings are instrumental in promoting sustainable housing practices. Sustainable urban development doesn’t just reduce the global carbon footprint, it also promotes better living conditions and lowers energy costs in cities and beyond.

Cities of the future

Amidst the urgent climate crisis, we need to reconcile two considerations: sustainability and uncertainty. The speed and complexity of current changes make it hard to tell which solutions will stand the test of time, and these doubts could easily prevent us from moving forward with necessary measures.

Yet within this landscape of unpredictability, the concept of sustainable urban development offers a tangible solution for a greener and more resilient world. While cities are particularly at risk from climate change, they also have the potential to drive powerful breakthroughs. Through integrated planning, community engagement and strategic investments, new urban development can forge a path towards resilient infrastructure, social cohesion and sustainable practices.

Looking ahead, urban resilience will be crucial for cities grappling with the challenges of a changing climate. As global awareness for the planet continues to grow, renewed emphasis on sustainable living will redefine the very essence of urban development, shaping cities that prioritize harmony with nature and the wellbeing of their residents.