Ep6: Making Our Urban Future Livable
Most of us on earth now live in cities. By 2050, more than two-thirds of us will. And by the end of this century, demographers predict, 85% of the world’s population will live in cities. By then, demographers estimate, cities like Lagos in Nigeria and Mumbai in India will have 60 million or more inhabitants, and much of the world's urban growth will be in Africa.
What will this mean for climate change, and how will climate change affect growing urban populations? Much depends on whether smart decisions are made now about how expanding cities develop, and how existing cities — especially in energy-intensive countries like the United States — adjust to be more climate-friendly.
Ping Huang, a post-doctoral research associate at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield, UK, and a native of Shenzhen, China, working on urban energy transition and climate governance.
Basirat Oyalowo, a researcher at the Department of Estate Management, University of Lagos, Nigeria, where she also manages the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development. Her research in housing studies and sustainability broadly focuses on issues around informality, resilience, housing finance, regeneration and real estate sustainability.
Linda Westman, a post-doctoral research associate at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield, UK, whose work focuses on urban sustainability transformation and the governance of sustainability and climate change, including a focus on China.
Siqi Zheng, an MIT professor focusing on urban and real estate sustainability. She directs MIT's Center for Real Estate, and creator and director of its Sustainable Urbanization Lab.
Click below to see the full episode transcript:
COAL+ICE Podcast, Episode 6: Making Our Urban Future Livable
April 11, 2022
Mary Kay Magistad: Cities draw us in, with their buzz, with the promise of better jobs, and better lives. They fuel the growth of industry, and economies, and global powers. They can inspire, or enrage. They can fulfill dreams, or dash them.
Most of us on earth now live in cities. By 2050, more than two-thirds of us will. And by the end of this century – the UN tells us — 85% of the world’s population will live in cities. By then, demographers estimate, cities like Lagos in Nigeria and Mumbai in India will have 60 million or more inhabitants.
You can use those statistics as a springboard to go in any number of directions. But here’s one that matters. What does all this mean for climate change? Because, the UN also tells us, 75% of the emissions that cause climate change, come from cities.
And this is already a moment when climate scientists are giving us ‘hair on fire’ warnings about how little time we have to reduce emissions, if we want to avoid warming the planet to a point where living on earth is just going to be harder. To avoid that, we need to get to net zero by 2050 – and that’s while all these cities, all around the world, will be growing. How do we square that circle?
01:50: This is the COAL and ICE Podcast, from Asia Society, with global conversations about how climate change is playing out around the world, and what we can do about it. I’m Mary Kay Magistad.
And here’s the thing, about climate change and cities. America has led by example – in showing how to live a carbon-intensive urban life. We built sprawling cities, and suburbs, then underinvested in subways and trains. We even ripped out streetcar systems a century ago – to increase reliance on cars – good for the oil companies, bad for the planet.
02:27: Linda Westman: Ooh. Something that enrages me is that that model has been exported. It absolutely is infuriating to see how that ideal has been promoted, and there’s a shift to those huge highways and parking lots and all of that. It's very depressing, actually, to see.
Mary Kay Magistad: This is Linda Westman. She’s a research associate at the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield in England. She’s Swedish, and is talking to me from Sweden. She’s lived in China, and studies cities there. And she’s now doing research on 141 emerging cities around the world, and what they can do about climate change as they grow.
03:08: Linda Westman: There’s a lot of thinking about how climate action can be integrated into urban planning, in particular for new developments, because we still see that there’s a growth of urban areas where you can think about things like compact designs, or integrating green space. It’s pretty incremental, what we’ve seen so far, though. Nothing is of the level of transformation that we’re going to need if we’re going to meet the climate targets.
We know that, for example, a denser urban space can lead to efficiencies in transport and so forth, but we're not seeing anything of the scale that would be required to prevent the climate breakdown. Also overall, globally but also in China, we see a shift towards thinking more about adaptation in cities, in terms of actually coping with climate impacts – so planning for where you have, let’s say, green spaces that can absorb water flows and water management, this kind of thing, rather than just focusing on mitigation.
04:05: Mary Kay Magistad: That’s crucial in a city like Lagos, for instance, in Nigeria, which is just a few feet above sea level. Lagos is growing fast, and it floods often – sometimes, with waters rising as high as the steering wheels of parked cars, with floods made worse by uncollected garbage backing up in sewage drains.
Basirat Oyalowu: It’s a city that has never stopped growing.
Mary Kay Magistad: This is Basirat Oyalowo. She’s a researcher on sustainable urban development, at the University of Lagos. She says, Lagos will continue to grow rapidly – because the pull factors are strong – better jobs, a chance for a better life. And, Basirat says, the government is straining to keep up.
Basirat Oyalowo: It’s not like the government is not doing anything, or has not done anything. It’s just that the scale of the problem keeps getting higher with intense urbanization.
05:00: Mary Kay Magistad: By the end of this century, some demographers predict, Lagos will be the world’s largest city. So the choices it makes now, in terms of how it grows, matters, in terms of climate change. Same, too, or course, for other emerging cities. And most of the world’s urban growth in the rest of this century is expected to be in Africa, spurring the growth of African economies, and the African middle class.
05:25: Rose Mutiso (Ted talk): Africans have a right to aspire to the same prosperity that everyone else enjoys. And we deserve the same chance at a job, at an education, at dignity and opportunity.
Mary Kay Magistad: This is a from a TED talk in November 2021, by Rose Mutiso, a materials engineer from Kenya, and research director of the Energy for Growth Hub.
05:28: Rose Mutiso (Ted talk): Working in global energy and development, I often hear people say, ‘because of climate, we just can’t afford for everyone to live our lifestyles. That viewpoint is worse than patronizing. It’s a form of racism. And it’s creating a two-tier global energy system, with energy abundance for the rich, and tiny solar lamps for Africans.
06:07: Mary Kay Magistad: Sure, she says, we all need to get to net zero, and fast, if we’re going to be able to live more or less comfortably on this planet. But it’s Americans, and Europeans, and Chinese – since China’s now the world’s biggest emitter – who need to take more steps faster to cut emissions, while Africans have some room to grow. After all, she says, Africa so far has contributed less than 1% of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, worldwide. But Africa is getting hit harder by climate change than most places on earth. As Rose Mutiso said in her TED talk, that means a couple of things:
06:47: Rose Mutiso (Ted talk): Africa needs more energy to fight climate change, not less. Because of its climate vulnerability, Africa's climate fight is about adaptation and resilience. And climate adaptation is energy intensive. To respond to extreme weather, Africans will need more resilient infrastructure. We're talking seawalls, highways, safe buildings, and more. To cope with drought, Africans will need pumped irrigation for their agriculture, and many will need desalination for fresh water. And to survive soaring temperatures, Africans will need cold storage and ACs, and hundreds of millions of homes, offices, warehouses, factories, data centers, and the like. These are all energy intensive activities.
07:28: Mary Kay Magistad: The good news is that at least some African countries are already well ahead of the United States in shifting to renewable energy. Kenya, for instance, gets about 90% of its electricity from renewable sources, according to its government, compared to just under 20% in the United States. So in the United States, we’ve got some work to do, as Linda Westman -- from the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute -- points out:
Linda Westman: Oh, yeah. (laughs). I mean, all of the resource consumption patterns are higher in North America, generally speaking. But definitely in the transport sector, you see a huge difference.
08:05: Mary Kay Magistad: This episode is about what can all do, going forward, in an increasingly urban future. I’ll be coming back to Linda, and also to a colleague of hers at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute:
Ping Huang: My name is Ping Huang, I'm a post-doctoral research associate at University of Sheffield, working on urban energy transition and climate governance.
Mary Kay Magistad: Ping grew up in China’s southern city of Shenzhen. It borders Hong Kong, and which grew from a cluster of villages to a mega-city over the past 40 years. Ping’s got a few things to say about lessons learned along the way.
But first, I also talked with another Chinese specialist on urban development – Professor Siqi Zheng. She’s now at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. She grew up in the city of Zhengzhou – the capital of China’s central province of Henan, one of China’s poorest provinces. Siqi then lived for years in the Chinese capital, Beijing, going to college, and then teaching at Tsinghua University – China’s MIT. Zhengzhou now has 12 million people. Beijing has more than 20 million. In both places, she says, the middle class has grown quickly, and is becoming more particular.
09:20: Siqi Zheng: When people want to choose where to live, then they want to choose some places, locations with better environment, like cleaner air and green park, green space.
Mary Kay Magistad: They want clean air and water. And they’re voting with their feet.
Siqi Zheng: So some of the cities, the leaders got the pressure from the top, saying ‘you must achieve this air quality standard.’ Then they shut down some factories. And then the workers lost their jobs, and they went on strike. So I always say, it’s a tale of two cities.
Mary Kay Magistad: The two cities being the urban experience for the affluent – versus the urban experience for those still struggling. They want, and need, different things.There are also class differences in attitudes toward climate change – or so some public opinion polling suggests. But Siqi says, in her own experience, many of her own friends aren’t really focused on climate change.
10:20: Siqi Zheng: To be honest (laughs), before I moved to the US, I lived in Beijing for many, many years. I have a lot of friends. And now I still have a lot of friends. We chat on WeChat. And my feeling is, compared to local pollution, like air pollution or water pollution, climate is less – much less – important in their mind. Because they first need to breathe clean air, and drink clean water. And climate is quite far away from that, unless they really have a clear understanding this flooding and all this extreme weather events, are due to climate change. But many of them, they don’t have that perception or awareness.
Mary Kay Magistad: Basirat, in Lagos, says something similar is happening there.
11:05: Basirat Oyalowu: It depends on who you’re talking to. So amongst academia, there is a concern and knowledge and the research that goes on around these issues. For the people, it’s a question of what they feel and what they see, and what they can visualize. A lot of people would know that it’s been raining more. We’ve had longer seasons and higher intensity of rains. They may not be interested in knowing that, oh, this is climate change. But they would look at it from how it affects them. So if flooding occurs and they’re stuck on the roof for hours, then they call to the government to fix the drains. You get what I mean?
12:02: Mary Kay Magistad: On the government level, Basirat says, there *is* recognition of climate change, just like in China.
Basirat Oyalowu: So the knowledge is there. The plans are there to address these issues. What is not there is the commitment, and maybe the resources, to actualize these plans.
Mary Kay Magistad: And, unlike in China, and more like in the United States – Basirat says Nigeria’s four-year presidential election cycle can mean a lack of continuity in climate policy.
12:38: Basirat Oyalowu: That ability to have a long-term vision idea of having a long-term plan and sticking with it for decades is something that African cities can learn from. So these policy shifts with each political – with changes in local administration -- is not working well for us.
Mary Kay Magistad: Nor is one other thing, which is coming not from within African countries’ borders, but from outside.
13:10: Basirat Oyalowu: African cities – we have to stop being the dumping ground for technologies that are no longer useful, or that are not deemed acceptable in developed countries, whether it’s in terms of transportation, in terms of production. The clean way of doing things must be permitted, and intensified.
Mary Kay Magistad: Siqi Zheng at MIT says China’s leaders are increasingly focused on the clean way of doing things, at home and abroad.
13:46: Siqi Zheng: Because the central government, they really made such a commitment to the entire world, right? And they want to show China’s leadership.
Mary Kay Magistad: Some observers outside China might scoff at that. Leadership? From a country known for its airpocalypse levels of urban air pollution? The answer is – yeah, but it’s complicated.
It’s true that President Xi Jinping told the National People’s Congress in March 2022, that China is – and this is a quote -- "rich in coal, poor in oil and short of gas,” and could not just “slam the brakes” on coal.
But, in the same speech, Xi Jinping also said that China will start reducing coal use at home in 2026, and has plans to get to net zero emissions by 2060. Of course, that’s a decade after the deadline by which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we must get to net zero, to avoid more extreme climate outcomes. To get there, China has to pick up the pace.
China has already pledged to stop building coal-fired power plants abroad, after building many. In the past two or three years, most of the new Chinese-built energy projects in Africa have been for renewable energy.
This, of course, comes after decades of dirty development.
15:00: I know about China’s air pollution at home from personal experience. I was living in Beijing, as a foreign correspondent, in the 1990s and first dozen-plus years of the 2000s, when air quality levels were regularly registering in the hazardous zone. I got pneumonia, visiting one of China’s most polluted cities at the time, Linfen in Shanxi province. It’s long been a hub of coal mining, refining and smelting. And actually, during my visit there in 2006 – breathing air that gave me pneumonia – residents told me that the air quality used to be much worse.
Linfen has since shifted from coal to natural gas for most of its energy use, which is at least a step in the right direction. And nationally now, in China, about a quarter of all electricity comes from renewable energy sources. That’s a bigger percentage than in the United States.
And China’s continuing to expand renewable energy available at home and abroad. The International Energy Agency says 43% of global growth in renewable energy capacity over the next five years is expected to come from China.
Ping Huang, from the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield – speaking here from Shenzhen – says the motivation for China’s policy-makers when doing all of this all this is partly about climate change, but it’s also because it’s good for China’s bottom line.
16:20: Ping Huang: And climate change is kind of – I want to say it's kind of like one of the pillars that supports the further development of the country, which is labeled as green development, or low carbon development. So that is how climate change has been reconceptualized on the ground in China, that this idea of addressing climate change is to facilitate further development that is greener, more environmentally friendly. So I think that’s the way we see it in China.
In terms of green transportation, in Shenzhen, the electric vehicles are quite popular and all the public transportation system has been shifted to electric. Like we have like 100% electric bus, 100% electric taxi. And also the charging infrastructure is pretty good here. And when you drive on the roads, you will see so many electric cars.
But the reason for that is not – I think it’s related to climate change, but not directly because we have to address climate change. But it’s more about the Shenzhen government, but more importantly the national government, incorporate addressing climate change, this kind of strategy, into green development. In Shenzhen, the electric vehicle case is the perfect case, that at the local level, a city can do this kind of thing, because there are a lot of supporting policies.
18:00: Mary Kay Magistad: For that reason and others, Shenzhen is ahead of the game in becoming a sustainable city, in terms of climate change. But Shenzhen is an exception, in China and in the world. It’s a showcase city, backed from the beginning of its urban growth by political will, incentives and investment, and by the organic energy of millions of Chinese people streaming in with dreams and ambition, from all over the country. Smaller and less affluent Chinese cities haven’t all yet made the turns toward climate-friendly sustainability that Shenzhen has. And really, Ping Huang says, even Shenzhen took a while to make those turns itself. So, what can growing African cities learn from China’s experience, if anything?
18:40: Ping Huang: I’m not sure if there are really some experience that African cities can learn from China. As you know, Chinese cities experienced a very typical way of development, which is pollution first, and then try to adjust later. And that's also one of the reasons why Shenzhen can do a really good job in environmental protection, because their financial capacity is so strong. So they pretty much just pay for it. To my understanding, no city in China has experienced this – find a new way of low carbon development. It is always pollution first, and then try to adjust later. So if there's one thing that African cities can learn from China, I think it's about the adaptive governance.
19:30: Mary Kay Magistad: Adaptive governance. Do what you can do to grow, being as climate friendly as you can at each step along the way. Build dense walkable neighborhoods, with good public transportation, and energy-efficient buildings using renewable energy as much as possible, while also recognizing that for people in need, focusing on climate change as the main goal seems a lofty abstraction.
So what does that mean for the cities that will emerge, or grow, in this century? Back to Ping’s colleague, Linda Westman. Here’s a long excerpt from my conversation with her, starting with her take on China’s plan to build five megacity clusters – that is, taking several cities that are already 10 million people or more – and making them into an even bigger urban region, as big as many US states:
20:20: Linda Westman: I think it's really interesting that these megacity clusters have become promoted as a sustainability solution. This is really fascinating to me, because I understand this fundamentally as an economic development strategy. There's a lot of influence here, I'm thinking, from these theories about industrial clusters and how you can concentrate specific forms of technology and knowledge in a region. And then you can sort of generate economic development from that.
And then there is, in addition, some sort of idea that you can get rid of surplus capacity. So if we’ve got three cities in a region, ok, maybe we don't need three airports. We can have one. And from that angle, it's been promoted as some sort of resource efficiency strategy. But actually, if you're concentrating loads of industrial capacity into one region, I would say it's very plausible that what you will get is more resource use, not less. It's a very good branding exercise, I think, for the Chinese government to be able to pull that off, as some sort of climate planning intervention.
21:22: Mary Kay Magistad: So this is another broad question, and not just China-focused. But, as more people aspire to live a better life, which as you said, could lead to them using more energy – a middle-class life tends to be one where you're moving around more, where you have more appliances, where you have central heating, where you have air conditioning. And quite a bit of that can happen, or perhaps is more likely to happen, as you move to cities, and are among other people who are doing the same thing. I know you focus a lot on social justice in urbanization. So what’s an equitable way to both – this is a huge question – to both reduce emissions, and recognize that people have a right to aspire to a better life when they move to cities?
22:09: Linda Westman: That *is* a huge question. I think you've really hit the nail on something that is very, very difficult, which is that most of the emissions that we have in our society is based on our individual consumption. And without targeting that, there is absolutely no way that we can deal with the climate crisis. That's just a fact. And politicians really struggle with that, because it's very difficult to design any kind of policy that is socially acceptable.
22:40: Mary Kay Magistad: But what have you seen that makes a difference in terms of what individuals are willing to do in terms of consumption? Like, I know that certain kinds of things, like ‘here, change, your light bulbs to lower energy using light bulbs’ – they make some difference, but maybe not a huge difference. It feels like we're in an era now, where certainly in the developed world, and absolutely in Europe, there's more consciousness of, ‘this is a crisis. This is an existential crisis. We need to do more to address it.’ But, you know, I'm in the United States where there are still a heck of a lot of people with multiple cars, driving around in SUVs, flying all over the place without really thinking about what the climate impact is.
23:25: Linda Westman: Honestly, we're never going to be able to address climate breakdown if we don't get to terms with that. It's literally impossible. And it's just so politically uncomfortable to say that out loud, that this is not even part of the conversation. But everyone who researches this knows that climate change is a problem because we have a capitalist global economy that is basically driven by extraction of fossil fuel resources. And consumption patterns are what continuously reproduces that problem. So it basically has to come down to us not buying as many things, consuming as many things, if we want to address this. And it’s just not politically possible to promote that. And I think that is why there is a lot of focus on solutions that focuses more on things we can buy that are green, so it feels that there is a win-win narrative that everyone can benefit from.
Personally so far, I feel like we've see that we haven't seen much change. But if we think about how these things happen over time, so something like not eating meat, for example, it takes a lot of time to build new social norms about what is – ok, is it ethical to consume meat or not – something that you have to debate in society, over generations, sometimes, to actually develop these new behaviors. On the other hand, we don’t have much time. So you’ve managed to hit the head on the nail of the actual climate problem, I think.
24:46: Mary Kay Magistad: Have you seen any place that's doing this well, in terms of consciousness that leads to an actual shift in behavior, that makes a difference in terms of emissions at the local level or at the country level?
Linda Westman: I think at the local level, there are lots of inspiring examples, especially of communities or neighborhoods, or even households that have really started to rethink their consumption practices and their way of life. But the real problem is that because they tend to be so based to a specific belief system or a setting, there's this idea that you can scale them up. And I've never seen that work. And if you don't scale it up, obviously we can't reach the impact that we're looking for. So I’m sorry to not be more optimistic in response to that question.
And I think also you started out by saying there's a very difficult ethical question here as well, in terms of the right to develop, which – that is the card that China has been playing in the climate negotiations. And I think they’re right. The fact is that the global capitalist economy was founded alongside an imperial system, where the countries that are now former imperial powers – North America and Europe – we caused this problem. If we can't sort this out, we really can't start expect anyone else to do so. And so I think there's very profound, moral questions embedded in this issue.
26:02: Mary Kay Magistad: Those questions loom now, as African cities grow. They’re the same kinds of questions Rose Mutiso raised in her TED talk, about the deadline looming for us all, to get to net zero emissions by 2050, to avoid even more pain from climate change:
Rose Mutiso (TED talk): Everyone must get to a zero-carbon future. In the transition, Africa and other poor nations deserve to get the balance of what's remaining in the world's carbon budget -- for economic competitiveness, for climate adaptation, for global stability, and for economic justice. Rich and high-emitting countries must uphold their responsibility to lead on decarbonization, starting in their own economies. We all have a collective responsibility to turn the tide on climate change. If we fail, it won't be because Senegal or Kenya or Benin or Mali decided to build a handful of natural gas power plants to provide economic opportunity for their people.
26:57: Mary Kay Magistad: And about that, Ping Huang, in Shenzhen, has a final thought:
Ping Huang: So I think in the end it’s trying to find a new balance between happiness and development. Because in the neoliberal world, I think there's no question about development, because we always need to find a new spot to enable the running of the whole economic system in the world. But if in a century, we're still on this old track, probably it's not only about carbon. It's about all kinds of resources. We will run out of all kinds of resources. So I think in the end, it's about a shift of the whole pattern of development, or even, it's the balance between people and nature, and people and what they call development. So what is development for, and for whom? I think that could be the question that we need to ask.
27:58: Mary Kay Magistad: Cities will grow. People will keep reaching for better lives. And we all need to get smarter, fast, about how to help them do that – without imperiling prospects for future generations to live comfortably on earth.
That’s it for this episode. Thanks to Linda Westman and Ping Huang of the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute, to Siqi Zheng of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and to Basirat Oyalowo at the University of Lagos, for sharing their thoughts on cities and climate change. You also heard excerpts from a TED talk in November 2021 by Rose Mutiso, a Kenyan materials engineer, and research director of the Energy for Growth Hub.
The COAL+ICE Podcast is a production of Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, where Orville Schell is director. I am the Center’s associate director, and editor and producer of this podcast. Our assistant producer is the Center’s program officer Taili Ni.
COAL+ICE is also a multimedia exhibition on climate change, with images of coal miners, melting glaciers, and impacts of climate change around the world. It’s co-curated by Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and Dutch exhibition designer Jeroen de Vries. The exhibition started in Beijing in 2011, and has since traveled around the world, including to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in March and April 2022. You can get a glimpse of the exhibition at coalandIce.org, and you can see videos of some of the panel discussions at the Kennedy Center – including a conversation between Al Gore and young climate activists – on Asia Society’s YouTube channel.
Next up – for our final episode, we’ll focus on how sci-fi and speculative fiction help us think about what’s possible in our shared future, living with climate change. Join us.