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Africa’s prosperity depends on sustainable cities

Carlos Lopes
By Carlos Lopes
High Representative of the Commission of the African Union

Carlos Lopes is the former head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. He is currently a professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town and a visiting professor at Sciences Po in Paris. He is also a member of the Global Commission for Economy and Climate.

Posted on Friday, 22 March 2019 16:01, updated on Monday, 25 March 2019 12:11

Kigali has put in pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and introduced car-free days. REUTERS/Ed Cropley

Carlos Lopes, high representative of the Africa Union Commission, gives his views on climate change from the 2019 African Climate Summit.

Last week, delegates from around the world met in Accra for the 2019 African Climate Summit.

It is no accident that the first ever regional climate summit is in Africa. Although Africans are responsible for only a tiny share of the carbon emissions that cause climate change, the continent is especially vulnerable to climate shocks. The 54 countries face a range of risks, from more severe flooding to drought to heat stress.

Many of these hazards are most pronounced in Africa’s cities.

  • Hard surfaces like roads and buildings do not absorb water, so there is more run-off and therefore more flooding.
  • Concrete and asphalt also radiate heat, particularly if there is no green space.
  • In summer, temperatures in informal settlements in Nairobi are up to 4°C hotter than other parts of the city.

Climate stress will only increase as Africa’s towns and cities grow. The urban population of Africa is predicted to expand by nearly a billion people between 2015 and 2050. This will place more pressure on the environments around towns and cities.

  • Cape Town discovered this in the terrifying months counting down to ‘Day Zero’, a water crisis that it averted in 2018 by severe water rationing.

Perhaps this is why many African countries are global leaders in the fight against climate change. Despite their low levels of emissions, countries from Burkina Faso to Kenya have committed to reduce emission intensity. Every tonne of greenhouse gases they avoid will help to allay the impacts of climate change.

With a growing share of both people and economic activity in urban areas, low-carbon cities will be absolutely key to reducing climate risk. The African Climate Summit recognises this, focusing on human settlements and energy. And cities from Accra to Durban are already making plans to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century.

But African governments cannot focus narrowly on climate mitigation in cities: they must also find ways to reduce poverty, create decent jobs and reduce pollution. It is therefore essential to identify low-carbon measures that also deliver real improvements in people’s lives.

And now, success stories are emerging from across the continent. These offer hope that choosing a green path can make African cities cleaner, healthier and richer.

  • Solar-powered street lights have been installed in Jinja, Uganda. Street lighting leads to safer streets, with extended opening hours for small businesses. And solar-powered street lights cost 25% less than conventional street lights, so many more can be installed for the same price.
  • Waste collection and recycling has been extended to informal settlements in Kampala, Uganda. By formally partnering with waste pickers, the state has been able to improve the livelihoods of the poorest while reducing flooding and disease.
  • Wide sidewalks and car-free days in Kigali, Rwanda, are encouraging people to walk rather than drive, which especially benefits those who cannot afford cars.
  • And Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems have been constructed in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, Lagos and Nairobi, which help tackle air pollution and congestion.
  • In every case, these cities have found a low-carbon path to address urgent priorities: public health, decent work, safe streets.

Every one of these success stories has, at its heart, a partnership between national and local governments.

Municipal authorities have a critical role to play in planning and providing public services.

  • Housing and transport, for instance, will all be better suited to local people’s needs if the state involves them in decision making. And people need to be able to reach their governments easily to tell them when a street light isn’t working or their waste isn’t being collected. It is hard to reach the national minister, but easy to reach the local councillor.

But municipal authorities need support to address the many challenges they face. Perhaps they cannot partner with waste-picker cooperatives if public procurement policies demand certain legal documents. Perhaps they cannot afford the construction costs of a new bus network. Perhaps they do not have the technical skills to install solar-powered street lights. In each of these cases, national governments can support local governments to deliver better public services at a lower cost – and with fewer emissions.

The African Climate Summit is the first step on the road to the annual climate negotiations. We should take this moment to celebrate African leadership on climate change. In cities across the continent, we see that there are opportunities to improve living standards today and ensure a safer planet in the future. Both national and local governments should be proud of these success stories.

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