Climate inequalities are moving from North-South to urban-rural

That means leaders need to prepare — especially regarding how the developing world deals with the triple challenge of rapid urbanization, social justice and environmental sustainability.
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Cities have been recognized as key drivers toward the successful governance of resources and as the front line in combating climate change. But the economic divide between the Global North and South that historically has shaped debates on urbanization and climate change could soon be overshadowed by inequalities related to a potentially stronger disparity between rural and urban areas: over carbon emissions.

New research analyzing data from more than 200 countries over five decades shows that countries’ rates of urbanization correlate more with carbon emissions than wealth (in terms of gross domestic product per capita). As countries urbanize, their cities’ contributions of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases start to become disproportionately high in comparison with their population and wealth.

This rural-urban divide is likely to precipitate into a more local yet complex dynamic. This will be particularly relevant to the developing world, which faces the triple challenge of rapid urbanization, social justice and environmental sustainability.

As global emissions disparities move from North-South to rural-urban, there is a greater need to address these local and sub-national inequalities at a national level. Cities in urbanized middle-income countries emit comparable levels of carbon dioxide per capita to those in richer countries, but some rural areas in these middle-income countries have low or even negative carbon emissions per capita.

[See: How Anne Hidalgo plans to get cities to adopt climate action plans by 2020]

Historically, urbanization has been correlated with wealth and the massive consumption of fossil fuels that accompanied it. Some accounts indicate that more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gases are produced within urban areas, which consume 60 to 80 percent of the world’s energy. As the world makes an unprecedented rural-to-urban population shift, the 21st century poses a challenge in further addressing inequalities in access to resources and allocation of carbon emissions.

International climate governance recognizes the divide between “have” and “have not” countries in terms of carbon emissions. But focusing on inequalities in terms of carbon emissions from a rural-urban perspective further differentiates the have-nots and establishes that “rural” developing countries are the most disadvantaged. Thus, a country’s degree of urbanization, and not merely its economy, also determines its carbon emissions.

“New research analyzing data from more than 200 countries over five decades shows that countries’ rates of urbanization correlate more with carbon emissions than wealth.”

The rural constituencies in Southeast Asia and Africa are the most disadvantaged, with electrification rates reaching only 69 percent and 26 percent of the populations, respectively. Electrification rates are the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, at 17 percent. This has implications for designing a fair global regime for ending energy poverty, tackling climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — the international community’s overarching framework for fighting poverty — due to ethical, empirical and governance gaps related to urban-rural carbon dynamics.

[See: Assessing the New Urban Agenda’s ‘new concept’: Integrating the city and countryside]

Meanwhile, population growth for the remainder of this century is predicted to occur primarily in cities in low- and middle-income nations. Asia alone saw a surge of 1 billion urban dwellers from 1980 to 2010 — more than the population of Western Europe and the United States combined — and the region is expected to add another billion by 2040.

Thus, a radical and urgent transformation in the way we build our cities is needed to avoid disproportional increases in carbon emissions and disparities between rural and urban resource access and carbon emissions.

Equal footing

But there are new answers, and new momentum, around how to structure this transformation being discussed at the international level. The SDGs as well as the global urbanization strategy adopted late last year, known as the New Urban Agenda, offer opportunities to provide solutions leading to sustainable cities by making leaders accountable for the ecological impacts of their cities.

The New Urban Agenda recognizes the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production in cities with impacts beyond urban areas. “Given cities’ demographic trends and their central role in the global economy, in the mitigation and adaptation efforts related to climate change, and in the use of resources and ecosystems,” the agenda’s Paragraph 63 states in part, “the way they are planned, financed, developed, built, governed and managed has a direct impact on sustainability and resilience well beyond urban boundaries.”

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda heal India’s urban-rural divide?]

“As global emissions disparities move from North-South to rural-urban, there is a greater need to address these local and sub-national inequalities at a national level.”

It is clear that equal access to resources forms the bedrock of sustainable human settlements and future urbanization. However, this translates into immense barriers to changing national urbanization pathways, particularly for developing countries, which seem to be following the unsustainable examples of urbanization in rich countries. For example, some cities in China now emit more carbon dioxide per capita than many cities in developed countries.

Promoting cities solely as engines of economic growth creates stiffer competition among cities, which leads to more consumption, higher concentration of wealth and more pollution. In turn, these dynamics increase inequities, particularly affecting the poorest and weakest in cities and rural areas — those who have little voice and suffer from having fewer resources and opportunities.

In order to decrease emissions and inequalities, there is an urgent need to catalyze and scale up innovations that provide adequate housing, energy access, transportation and economic opportunities for the growing urban population in a sustainable manner.

[See: Equity can help cities win the sustainability race]

The SDGs, New Urban Agenda and Paris Agreement on climate change together offer a chance to show the importance of sustainable urbanization in fighting inequalities within and beyond cities.

Still, although changes made toward more-sustainable urbanization patterns would yield immense climate co-benefits, the implementation of international agendas is far from catalyzing the necessary changes on the ground. For that, we need to strengthen institutions and capabilities at the local and sub-national levels so they can lead the urban transformation — one that positively impacts on cities and beyond.

This article is based on a paper that was part of the United Nations University’s Habitat III series featuring research and commentary related to the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development that took place in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador. To read more on this topic, see the following publications:

Sethi, M. and Puppim de Oliveira, Jose A. (2015). “From global ‘North-South’ to local ‘Urban-Rural’: A shifting paradigm in climate governance?” Urban Climate, 14 (4) 529-43.

Doll, C. N.H and Puppim de Oliveira, Jose A. (Eds.) (2017). Urbanization and Climate Co-Benefits: Implementation of Win-Win Interventions in Cities. Routledge.

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Jose A. Puppim de Oliveira

Jose A. Puppim de Oliveira is a faculty member at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV/EAESP and FGV/EBAPE) and a visiting research fellow at the UNU International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH) in Kuala Lumpur.

Mahendra Sethi

Mahendra Sethi is an urban environment expert and editor at the National Institute of Urban Affairs (New Delhi), and was previously a PhD research fellow at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) in Tokyo.