Mobilizing Africa’s rapid urbanization for sustainable climate change

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities that are responsible for over 75 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, given their enormous contribution to climate change, cities should be at the heart of the battle at COP21. We are not referring to New Delhi or Beijing here—pollution levels in African cities are too on the rise at an unprecedented scale, but go largely unmonitored. As Africa urbanizes—it is the second-fastest urbanizing region in the world and in just five years is projected to surpass Asia as the fastest—there is an increasing need to prioritize urban management and adaptation policies for sustainable climate change action.

African cities on the move

Though Africa has the lowest proportion of its population living in cities compared to other regions, this trend is quickly changing: According to a report by McKinsey, in 2010, Africa was nearly as urbanized as China and had as many cities with over one million people as Europe. Forecasts from the World Urbanization Prospects 2014 suggest that by 2050, Africa’s urban population is projected to triple, making the continent the host of the world’s second-largest urban population behind Asia. At the moment, according to a recent KPMG Africa report, three African cities—Lagos, Cairo, and Kinshasa—fall within the true definition of “megacities” (10 million people or more).This rapid growth of African cities will push at least another six cities—Johannesburg, Luanda, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Casablanca, and Khartoum—into the “megacity” class within the next couple of decades.

Increasing urban populations have been driving up energy demands and pollution levels—as anyone who has been stuck in traffic congestion in Lagos already knows. Thus, this trend not only raises global warming concerns, but also, if these rising demands and greenhouse gas emissions are left unmonitored, they could potentially pose further challenges for urban planning needs. This outcome results from the fact that urbanization on the continent is not just driven by standard models of structural transformation that have been explored in economic literature. Many have argued that urbanization in Africa is also driven by factors such as climate change: In some areas the lengthened dry seasons and environmental shocks are forcing Africa’s rural workforce to seek employment in the city. As they move into cities, a large proportion of rural migrants get stuck in low-productivity employment in the non-tradable sector—increasing demand for better urban planning for basic services, infrastructure, housing, waste management, human livelihoods, and health.

The urban divide

A large urban population by itself is not a cause for major concern—in fact urbanization and growth should go hand in hand—but the looming challenge lies in the lack of urban planning that can present environmental challenges. This is the ultimate dilemma at the heart of the climate change negotiations: how to balance economic development and climate responsibility even though the two aims are not diversionary.

The poor are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters—bad news for sub-Saharan Africa. Cities in sub-Saharan Africa are grappling with issues of rapid urban inequality, poverty, and insecurity. According to a recent World Bank report, sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where a rising share of the urban population has not played a positive role in overall poverty reduction. In addition, while child mortality is on average lower in urban areas, child mortality of the poor is often higher in urban areas. These rising problems are related to efficiency and inclusion: lack of basic services, dysfunctional land and housing markets, underdeveloped manufacturing, insufficient transport infrastructure, and slums. In fact, over 70 percent of Africa’s urban population is estimated to be living under “slum conditions.” Rising global warming and an increase in the number of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and storms, tend to adversely affect these masses more, leading them further into the vicious cycle of poverty and inequality.  

Better cities, better growth

This is the opportunity to successfully implement sustainable urban management policies. Huge and long-lasting investments are pouring into infrastructure for cities in Africa—making cities, energy grid systems, and land use policies open to opportunities and risk. There is an urgent need to emphasize the increasing dangers of delay to avoid high-carbon lock-in of capital and infrastructure investments. 

The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals include a goal that advocates making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable with a more specific focus on decreasing the impact of disasters and reduction in the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities. Urban planners are increasingly concerned about the issue as well—assistance for climate projects was among the top concerns for city officials according to a World Bank Institute’s Municipal Finance Self-Assessment exercise. The global cities response on climate change has been gaining momentum, although rather slowly. In the lead up to COP21, 10 cities worldwide, including Cape Town, announced that they had met all planning and reporting requirements of the Compact of Mayors (the world’s largest coalition of city leaders addressing climate change by pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions). The compact enables cities to publicly commit to deep carbon dioxide emissions reductions, improve transparency of targets, and move to global reporting standards. To date, 165 cities, out of which 30 are African, have committed to the compact.

Given the comparatively late onset of urban growth in Africa, there is potential for recognizing these challenges at an early planning stage and embracing new urban paradigms that are more conducive to building green cities that support positive economic, social, and environmental links. Investment in labor productivity, greener solutions, vulnerability reduction, public health hazard mitigation, social integration, and technological innovation will ensure that sustainable urbanization and economic development of African cities does indeed go hand in hand. In his message on World Cities Day, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the importance of design as a strong participatory tool for cities that are designed to “live together” to create opportunities, enable connection and interaction, and facilitate sustainable use of shared resources.

Financing is, however, a key constraint for African cities. Outside of a few cities like Johannesburg, African cities depend on transfers from the central governments for their financing, in part because of the predominance of informal economic activities and the narrowness of the formal tax base. Going forward, it will be important to strengthen municipal financing tools, including through local banking and capital markets, and develop new ones to meet the growing demands on African cities.