Explainer

The Road to Quito

Sworup Nhasiju

Multiple international processes have come together to make 2015 and 2016 watershed years in defining a new global development strategy, collectively referred to as the Post-2015 Development Agenda. These processes include agreements around new financing mechanisms (in July 2015), the new Sustainable Development Goals (in September 2015), the COP 21 climate talks (in December 2015) and the Habitat III conference, in October 2016. Together, the decisions made through these negotiations will influence the world’s collective anti-poverty and climate change approaches for the next decade and a half, and likely well beyond. See here for a calendar of important events within each of these processes.

Have preparations started for the Habitat III conference?

Although Habitat III takes place in October 2016, preparations began in earnest over two years before the conference was set to convene. UN-Habitat, the agency that will steward the summit, has put in place a formal process leading up to the conference that aims to allow for significant contributions from stakeholders, both to help set the agenda and influence the debate. Moreover, as a U. N.-level conference, other major events within the U. N. system will contribute important resolutions, agreements and milestones marking the road to Quito.

What came first?

On 17-18 September 2014, the first formal preparatory committee, or PrepCom 1, took place, at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This was even before Quito was formally announced as the Habitat III host city. PrepCom 1 served as an opportunity to set the wheels in motion for the Habitat III process, both internally and externally.

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As a procedural matter, Diego Aulestia Valencia of Ecuador and Maryse Gautier of France were elected co-chairs of the Habitat III Bureau, a kind of secondary organizing committee that works closely with the Habitat III Secretariat. Nation states were able to use PrepCom 1 to kick off their own Habitat III planning by, for example, establishing national committees that will be tasked with preparing national urban reports to be submitted to the United Nations prior to the conference.

For NGOs that have wanted to participate in the process, PrepCom 1 also established the necessary status with the U. N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). These NGOs will now automatically be entitled to participate in Habitat III preparation and the conference itself.

U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was on hand to open the PrepCom process, stating, “Urban areas are at the heart of many great challenges, opportunities and promise.” He highlighted “good, strong planning” as vital to sustainable, equitable urbanization.

Others at PrepCom 1 were even more blunt. “Our future will be decided in cities,” Joan Clos, UN-Habitat’s executive director and the lead official for the Habitat III conference, declared.

What was next in this process?

The next major event was the second preparatory committee, PrepCom 2, which took place 14-16 April 2015 at UN-Habitat’s headquarters in Gigiri, Nairobi, home to the U. N. Mission to Africa. According to the Habitat III Secretariat, the Nairobi talks brought together around 769 participants and 90 delegations. Civil society and other groups also put on 36 side events.

The key decisions made at PrepCom 2 were around nailing down dates, including for PrepCom 3 and the actual Habitat III conference. With dates and locations set, Habitat III became more tangible to the delegates that travelled to the Kenyan capital than it was during PrepCom 1. The Kenya gathering did have a much more in-depth debate, including reflection on the progress of the Habitat Agenda and how its outcomes will be reformulated in the New Urban Agenda.

However, participants failed to agree on a key bit of operational policy, the rules of procedure governing accreditation of non-member-state participants in the Habitat III process. Instead, that decision was kicked to the U. N. General Assembly meeting in September, leaving in limbo how or even whether local governments and civil society stakeholders would be able to participate in the negotiations toward the New Urban Agenda. More is available here.

Next comes PrepCom 3?

No, following the meetings in Nairobi the formal Habitat III PrepComs don’t pick back up for a year. But that doesn’t mean that the process itself will come to a halt — in fact, at this point is when momentum will really start to pick up.

The next major event took place on 13-16 July 2015, at the Third International Conference on Finance for Development in Addis Ababa. Financing is a vital if overlooked component of global development, of course, and the agreements that emerge from U. N. conferences like Habitat III remain words on paper without action.

In turn, that action requires access to capital. The New Urban Agenda may, for example, set guidelines for public transportation access, informal settlement upgrading and urban resiliency projects. Yet cities, especially in the developing world, will be unable to meet these goals without significant financing.

Importantly, the gathering of heads of state, ministers, development NGOs and private sector partners in Addis Ababa came just ahead of the international community’s planned agreement on the new Sustainable Development Goals. These critical discussions on financing will thus play a crucial role in the road to Quito.

Late summer 2015 also saw the start of a series of official and semi-official processes that will directly inform the drafting of the New Urban Agenda. These include national, regional and thematic meetings, as well as a series of several dozen “Urban Thinkers Campuses” aimed at gathering extensive stakeholder input. August through November will also see meetings of 200 experts in 10 “policy units”, tasked with providing formal recommendations on the drafting and implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals again?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed upon 15 years ago, have guided much of the international community’s development work over the past decade and a half. As they were meant to do, however, the MDGs expire in 2015, with some goals met and others still outstanding.

This has prompted a successor set of global targets known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have been under negotiation for years. Unlike the MDGs, which only applied to countries in the developing world, the SDGs apply equally to all nations. As such, various interests groups have been lobbying for their particular issue — water, energy, food security, etc. — to be accorded SDG status.

Of particular interest to Habitat III attendees, a concerted movement successfully push for an urban-focused SDG. This sets specific goals for cities, thus elevating urban areas as an essential, even core component of the sustainable development agenda.

When the U. N. General Assembly conveneed in September 2015, a special summit was held during which U. N. member states formally adopted the SDGs — the Special Summit on Sustainable Development.

The inclusion of the urban SDG, as well as any indicators or metrics that determine its success or failure, will hugely influence the Habitat III debate.

You also mentioned negotiations around climate change?

Right, one of the most highly anticipated U. N. events for all of 2015 will take place 30 November through 11 December in Paris: the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Those talks have set a lofty and contentious goal reaching global agreement on how to respond to new data on the impact of climate change. The stated hope is to figure out how to limit global average temperature to an increase of just 2 degrees C over the pre-industrial era.

Any new agreement will replace the current global accord on climate change, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Whatever member states come up with at the 21st meeting of what’s known as the Conference of Parties (COP 21) — assuming they can agree on anything — it will start to be implemented in 2020.

As yet, however, achieving consensus among nation states has proven exceptionally difficult. Even more complex, cities and metropolitan areas are responsible for the lion’s share of global carbon emissions. As a consequence, climate change will be high on the Habitat III agenda. The hope here is that agreements will be able to be reached among mayors and city leaders to curb emissions, with or without binding agreements between countries.

The negotiating text for the COP agreement, meanwhile, was released in late February, with another version released in late July. Surprisingly, cities are mentioned only once, alongside a list of subnational actors in a call to scale up their actions. Nonetheless, top leaders in the urban movement say that as long as agreement on the basic 2 degree limit can be reached in Paris, this will facilitate a whole range of subsequent frameworks that can directly affect cities and urban areas.

That’s a lot for 2015! What happens in 2016?

After the SDG and COP 21 summits, the most important event for the Habitat III process will be the third PrepCom. As decided at PrepCom 2, this event will take place 25-27 July 2016 — so, roughly three months ahead of the Habitat III conference — in Jakarta, Indonesia.

As the final preparatory committee before Habitat III, the Indonesia meeting will likely need to tie up any remaining loose ends. In particular, it will conclude any final negotiations about the conference’s agenda — potentially a contentious process.

And finally…

Exactly: 17-20 October 2016. Quito. The Habitat III conference finally takes place. This is where the up to 193 U. N. member states will agree upon the formal outcome of the Habitat III process, the New Urban Agenda.

In addition, the world’s leading urbanists, city leaders, municipal officials, mayors, academics, civil society activists and private sector representatives will likewise converge on the Ecuadorian capital. While they will undoubtedly be eager to offer final recommendations on the Habitat III process, at this point it will be up to the delegations of nation states to hammer out the final text of the New Urban Agenda.

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