Since emerging 200,000 years ago, homo sapiens have become increasingly disconnected from nature. In attempting to transcend nature, we tried to avoid being at its mercy, have nature serve us, and use-exploit nature. This has accelerated over the past 35,000 years, as we evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, and finally entered the industrial age. We have essentially lost touch with nature even though nature is key to both good health and solving our environmental and climate crises.
In the three decades since the RIO Summit and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) launch, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention (COP) has convened member countries annually to determine ambitions and responsibilities and to identify and assess climate measures. The 21st Century of the COP (COP21) led to the Paris Agreement, which mobilized global collective action to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrialized levels by 2100 and to act to adapt to the already existing effects of climate change.
In 2015, the United Nations developed the Sustainable Development Goals, of which the 11th is to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” In 2021, the United Nations declared a healthy planet a fundamental human right.
The COP's second Urban Ministerial will anchor COP28's Multilevel Action, Urbanization, and Built-Environment Transport Day. The high-level event will convene a diverse set of ministers, local and regional leaders, financial institutions, and non-government stakeholders to agree on a suite of multilevel, Paris-aligned actions for cooperation in the UNFCCC space, focused on joint policy and finance for sustainable urbanization across sectors, including buildings, waste, transport, water, energy, and nature.
What topics and issues are on the agenda?
The host nation, UAE, set out four goals to work on during the two-week event:
- Fast-tracking the just, equitable and orderly energy transition, and slashing emissions before 2030
- Transforming climate finance by delivering on old promises and setting the framework for a new deal on finance
- Putting nature, people, lives and livelihoods at the heart of climate action
- Mobilizing for an inclusive COP
What is the broader significance of these issues?
Any of these four goals is a monumental undertaking, and each applies to the urbanized or the natural-built environment. Humans evolved in the natural environment during 99% of our time on Earth. Now, approximately 56% of the world's population resides in urban areas, both small and large. That amount is projected to be 68% by 2050 and is expected to continue growing. The eight billion people populating the Earth today are projected to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050. The broad significance of this is that our disconnection with nature will only continue to grow and we will exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity. Yet, nature will be crucial in the fight against climate change.
These urban areas are also well-known heatsinks, or islands, that absorb heat from the sun and exacerbate higher use of energy, water, wastewater, building materials, transportation infrastructure, and vehicles. Nature-based solutions, or engineering with nature, is one way to mitigate these impacts significantly. Some other solutions are sustainable processes for producing clean energy and water, turning solid and liquid waste into clean/reusable materials, and developing more efficient and safe transport.
The broader issue of reducing carbon emissions from oil is daunting, and given our human nature and selfish interests, we are likely to see a phase-down rather than a phase-out approach. With reports of nearly one million environmental groups worldwide working toward this and the associated crises, however, there is still hope.
The natural-built environment of Planet Earth is one highly complex system and warrants a multilevel systems approach primarily focused on urban areas.
Who are the main players and stakeholders involved?
The COP28 President-Designate has urged G20 nations to lead the way and demonstrate solidarity on climate action, while nearly 200 countries and 70,000 delegates are represented.
Asia is by far the largest emitter, accounting for 53% of global emissions. Home to 60% of the world’s population, per capita emissions in Asia are slightly lower than the world average. However, China is the world’s largest emitter, accounting for 27% of global emissions. North America – with 15% of global emissions by the United States – is the second largest regional emitter at 18% of global emissions. It’s followed closely by Europe with 17% of global emissions. Thus, the Global North is responsible for roughly 88% of global emissions.
Of course, the world's population and all life on earth are the stakeholders of the climate crisis. Yet, the poorest and most vulnerable are the greatest at risk and will be the first impacted.
Important tenants: things to remember
A straightforward set of tenants for sustaining our natural-built environment was put forth by a foremost systems thinker, Donella Meadows, over 50 years ago:
- Renewable resources should be used no faster than they can regenerate.
- Pollution and waste shall not be put into the environment faster than the environment can recycle them or render them harmless.
- Non-renewable resources shall not be used at all, and renewable substitutes should be developed.
- The human population and the physical capital plant must be kept at levels low enough to meet the first three conditions.
- The previous four conditions must be met through processes that are democratic and equitable enough that people will stand for them.
Meadows also pointed out that:
"There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion."
Engineering, construction, and infrastructure related to the climate and environment in urban environments are discussed in many places, but Robert Prieto, another systems thinker, provides further context.
This does not include many other topics important to urban (and rural) areas such as risk capital markets and insurance.
Tenants for a path forward are critical.
What outcomes and developments can we expect from these discussions?
COP28 had a great start. Delegates from nearly 200 countries agreed on details for running the Loss & Damage Fund designed to help vulnerable countries deal with more extreme weather stoked by global warming. This major breakthrough came just a year after these countries first agreed to set up the fund.
Countries almost immediately began pledging money to start the program. COP28 host, the United Arab Emirates and Germany pledged $100 million, the United Kingdom promised $50 million, the United States committed $17.5 million, and Japan pledged $10 million. The Global North (United States, China, Russia, etc.) is the most significant contributor to this crisis and should pay the costs. While climate finance is off to a great start, the costs of the climate crisis will likely be much higher.
Multilevel urban actions can include many innovations already underway, such as planting more trees to create more green space in urban areas and cool urban temperatures, providing more connection with nature, and using natural or environmentally friendly building materials. Examples include the 15-minute city, complete streets, protection of estuaries, and flood plains — in general, engineering with nature. We still have much to learn from Mother Nature, and what nature and biomimicry can teach us are invaluable resources. After all, Mother Nature has had over 4.0 billion years of life on earth to glean these lessons.
Our 4.5 billion-year-old Planet Earth is on the cusp of setting the quality of the global ecosystem for the next thousands of years. Earth is essentially one self-regulating system, much like any individual species. Moreover, we as humans are not separate, and we cannot transcend nature. We are part of the community of life. Perhaps we as humans were unable to learn this lesson until recent decades. Now, we have learned this lesson and must take the necessary steps to help our planetary ecosystem and the community of life that inhabits it to live in harmony. An actionable, measurable, and multilevel action plan on the natural-built environment, or urban areas, is critical to this effort.
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