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Special Lecture at Konkuk University, Seoul, Korea “Climate Change and Human Settlements” By Anna Tibaijuka Under-Secretary-General & Executive Director UN-HABITAT 10 March 2010
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Special Lecture at Konkuk University,
Seoul, Korea

“Climate Change and Human Settlements


Anna Tibaijuka
Under-Secretary-General &
Executive Director

10 March 2010

Dr. Woobong Kim, Vice President, Konkuk University 
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour and a pleasure for me to be here today to share my views on the issue of “Climate Change and Human Settlements”.

I am happy to be this afternoon in Seoul, a city which along with several other Korean cities is taken a lead in “walking the talk” on climate change issues, combining efforts of local government, the private sector and academia. Seoul is a shining example of a newly sustainable, inclusive, friendly, greener and welcoming city. If all cities would follow in Seoul’s footsteps, there would perhaps not be so many worries about the feasibility of reaching significant cuts in green house gas emissions.

It is also my great pleasure to come to Konkuk University, which is recognized as one of leading universities in Korea, with a keen interest in issues of human settlements and the environment. As a holder of doctorate degree in Agro-economics, I was especially pleased to know that Konkuk University tops in the field of agriculture and life-science. I also learned that the University has 26,000 students at its two campuses – a rapid growth since its establishment in 1950 with only 146 students.

For this special lecture today I would like to take a “wide angle focus” on the discussion of human settlements and climate change, which is indeed closely related with the challenge of sustainable urbanization.

Rapid urbanisation

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Rapid urbanization is happening, and it is occurring largely in developing countries where a massive demographic shift has enormous implications in terms of poverty, natural resources and the environment. The ‘State of the World Cities Report’ published by UN-HABITAT in 2008 projects an average growth of 5 million new urban residents per month in the developing world. In the coming decades, the developing countries will be responsible for 95 percent of the world’s urban population growth.

Levels of urbanization are expected to rise, with the least urbanized regions of Asia and Africa transforming from largely rural societies to predominantly urban regions during the course of this century. By 2050, the urban population of the developing world will be 5.3 billion; Asia alone will host 63 per cent of the world’s urban population, or 3.3 billion people.

International perspective on urban environment

The ecological interaction of cities and their hinterlands is a recurring theme. Rapid urbanization and climate change have given it new impetus and sense of urgency. Way back in 1976, the Habitat conference in its plan of action stated:

“expected population growth and migration mean that urban expansion will be the most common and universal development challenge. However, urban expansion can take the form of urban sprawl, it is then costly, wasteful and ecologically destructive”.

Later at the Rio Summit in 1992, Chapter 7 of Agenda 21 explicitly addressed the issue and introduced the concept of sustainable human settlements for the first time. It stated that

“urbanization if properly managed offers unique opportunities for the supply of sustainable environmental infrastructure through adequate pricing policies, educational programmes and access mechanisms that are economically and environmentally sound”. 

At the Habitat II conference in 1996, the international community underscored in the Habitat Agenda the need for new approaches to planning and managing rapid urban growth and human settlements. These and other debates advanced the notion of “sustainable urbanization” to help unpack the complex processes of urbanization and the symbiotic relations between the urban and rural settlements.

We have come a long way on the debate and discourse of these issues. But the challenges are complex and daunting, and require continuous engagement and effort at all levels. The climate change phenomenon is making the issue of sustainable urbanization a matter of urgency,

Cities and Climate Change

Climate change is now recognized as one of the most pressing global issues of our planet.  It is no coincidence that global climate change has become a leading international development issue at the same time as the world has become urbanized. The way we plan, manage, operate and consume energy in our cities will have a critical role in our quest to reverse climate change and its impact.

Seventy-five percent of commercial energy is consumed in urban and peri-urban areas. In addition, 80% of all waste is generated from our cities and up to 60 percent of Greenhouse Gas Emissions which cause global climate change emanate directly from cities. 

There have been recently warnings that the sea level is rising twice as fast as was forecasted, threatening hundreds of millions of people living in deltas, low-lying areas and small island states. But the threat of sea-level rise to cities is only one piece of the puzzle. More extreme weather patterns such as intense storms are another. Tropical cyclones and storms, in the past two years alone, have affected some 120 million people around the world, mostly in developing and least developed countries. Indeed, in some parts of the world, inland flooding is occurring more often and on a more intense basis.

Also, we are witnessing more frequent flooding and drought in the same year, causing heavy impact on food security, energy and water supply. This is practically daily occurrence for many of the world’s less fortunate people who live in life-threatening slums. For them, the climate is already out of control and, perhaps equally important, out of comprehension.

The impacts of climate change will be felt strongly in the years to come. If sea levels rise by just one meter, many major coastal cities will be under threat: Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, New York, Lagos, Alexandria-Cairo, Mumbai, Kolkata, Dhaka, Shanghai, Osaka-Kobe and Tokyo, just to mention some mega cities that are under imminent threat.

The many smaller coastal cities, especially those in developing countries and those of small island nations will suffer most due to their limited adaptation options. More and more people are drawn to the urban magnet. In many parts of the world, climate refugees from rural areas that have been hit by drought or flooding aggravate the migration to cities. Those parts of the population who already suffer from poor health conditions, unemployment or social exclusion are rendered more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and tend to migrate to cities within or outside their countries. The UN predicts that there will be millions of environmental migrants by 2020, and climate change is one of the major drivers. 

Therefore, there is no doubt that climate change exacerbates existing social, economic and environmental problems, while bringing on new challenges. The most affected today, and in future, will be the world’s urban poor – and chief among them, the estimated 1 billion slum dwellers.

The role of cities in mitigation

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is crucial to recognize that cities and urban residents are not just victims of climate change but also as part of the problem. And if cities are part of the problem, that means they must also be part of any solution.

We all agree that mitigation measures are urgently required. However, and to date, the measures we envisage at the global and national levels have yet to be accompanied by concerted measures at the city and local levels. While we fine-tune carbon trading instruments, we need to take immediate actions to make our cities more sustainable by revisiting our land-use plans, our transport modalities, and our building designs. There is a unique opportunity to bridge our global efforts in emissions control with local efforts to improve the quality of life and the productivity of our cities. Our cities are, after all, the driving force of our economies, and what better measures can we take than to reduce traffic congestion, improve air and water quality, and reduce our ecological footprint. 

In this regard, urban density is a key factor. A recent survey indicated that in New York City, per capita greenhouse gas emissions are among the lowest in the United States. This is because less energy is needed to heat, light, cool and fuel buildings in this compact city where more than 70 percent of the population commutes by public transit. 

The city of Atlanta in the USA and Barcelona Spain, for example, both have a population of about 2.5 million. Atlanta currently occupies an area of 4200 sq km whereas Barcelona occupies only 162 sq km. Atlanta consumes much more energy due to its urban form and higher per capita energy consumption.

Climate change mitigation can be a good business opportunity. Clean, low-carbon infrastructure investments, retrofitting of buildings, the renewal of our transport systems are opportunities for ‘green’ investments. According to the estimates of international associations of local governments, already 2800 cities have committed themselves to reducing their annual GHG emissions, or meeting other targets for more sustainable urban development. While most of these cities are in the Global North, others in the South are taking specific measures taken to reduce urban emissions include construction of an urban wastewater methane gas capture project, undertaken in Santa Cruz (Bolivia); energy efficiency audits of municipal buildings by Cape Town (South Africa); and development of rapid transport systems and other measures designed to reduce the use of single occupancy vehicles in a number of cities.

The role of cities in adaptation

At the same time, there is rising consensus that we must take immediate adaptation measures to reduce vulnerability. Here again, we have yet to recognize the need to plan our cities and settlements to prevent loss and destruction of lives and properties.  In my view, the time to act is now and the place to act is in the cities of the world. Cities not only have to take preventative measure, they must plan to offset the worst.

In this respect, there is no doubt that local authorities will be the front line actors in finding local answers to these global challenges. There are no one-size fit all solutions and each local authority will have to assess its own risks and vulnerability and plan accordingly.

It is obvious that local authorities, especially secondary cities in developing countries that are growing the fastest, will be the most severely tested by these challenges. These cities, despite their rapid growth, contribute a minimal share to global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet they are the cities that are most at risk in terms of suffering the impacts of climate change.

Cities can adapt to the impacts of climate change via effective urban management. Planning and land use controls can prevent people from building in zones at risk of flooding and landslides (e.g., restrictions on building within 50 year floodplains in South Africa). Guidelines and regulations, such as a decision issued by the Thua Thien Hue provincial authorities in Vietnam to encourage cyclone-resistant building practices, can increase resiliency and make economic sense.

However, we also know that many cities in Least Developed Countries do not have much urban infrastructure assets that can be adapted. Therefore, adaptation can not be disconnected from the need for local development. Both adaptation and mitigation strategies in urban areas require new and improved infrastructure and basic services. This provides cities in developed and developing countries with unique opportunities to redress existing deficiencies in housing, urban infrastructure and services and to create jobs and a new opportunities to stimulate the urban economy.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Cities are the reservoir of knowledge and innovation, where innovations are born and human capital is abundant. There are many cities around the world which are leading by example through their commitment to sustainable development.

Last year, I was privileged to participate in the third C40 Large Cities Climate Summit in Seoul, which is a prominent member of this alliance. Mayors and their delegations from 40 large cities participated in this event to share their experiences in addressing Climate Change. Many of these large cities have long recognized that they play a crucial role in addressing climate change and in fact many cities have taken decisive actions to address climate change which exceed the goals and targets set by their respective national governments.

What struck me in particular at this meeting was the resolve with which the cities stuck to their climate action plans despite the current economic crisis. They remain convinced that climate change action makes economic sense. For example, increased energy efficiency is not only good for the climate but also makes sense for a city's budget. As former president Bill Clinton said: "For every 1 billion US dollars invested in the retrofitting of houses to increase their energy efficiency, 6000 jobs are created. This is six times bigger in impact than in average public investments. And what is more: savings in energy will pay back for this investment in just over 7 years".

The Cities in Climate Change Initiative.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The technologies are there. The solutions exist. They range from water harvesting to solar energy, and from affordable mass transit to bio-fuel production. But turning the huge unmet needs into market demand requires the right mix of political will and commitment, well-founded policies and strategies, an enabling business environment and capacity development.

It is in this context and in response to these challenges that UN-Habitat has launched the Cities in Climate Change Initiative. This initiative is supporting the efforts of government agencies and local authorities in adopting more holistic and participatory approaches to urban environmental planning and management, and the harnessing of ecologically sound technologies. The Initiative uses adaptation as a starting point to engage people, their local authorities and the private sector in risk abatement action.

This starting point leads to mitigation. Here, the Cities in Climate Change Initiative argues that the measures required for adaptation and mitigation are the same, namely better land use planning, better urban management, more participatory governance focusing on more resilient housing and smarter infrastructure and basic services. 

The Cities in Climate Change Initiative has started off last year in four pilot countries of Mozambique, Uganda, Philippines and Ecuador. It has since expanded to cities in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda and Senegal. We are currently starting assessments in several Asian countries [*KOICA has expressed an interest in contributing to further work in Asia] and we are fundraising to respond to the strong interest from Small Island Developing States in the Pacific and the Caribbean. 

UN-HABITAT provides capacity building support and helps ensure the sharing and transfer of knowledge and lessons learned from experience. We have received new mandates by our Governing Council to support cities in addressing Climate Change more forcefully. We will face the challenge in partnership with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI).

In partnership with the Cities Alliance, the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme, we are refining methods to support cities to measure their climate footprint and assess their climate change vulnerability. These metrics should assist cities in accessing climate related finance.

Seoul Award Projects

The three important projects for which the Seoul Metropolitan Government is awarded today are excellent examples of the city’s efforts to balance economic, environmental and social dimensions of urbanization. First, we have the inspiring transformation of Nanjido. Once a former dump-site, today it is an Eco-Park. Secondly, we have the restoration of Cheonggyecheon as a river side recreation area, and thirdly, and very importantly, the introduction of SHIFT – the long-term rental housing system.

These initiatives are based on policies for sustainable development and social cohesion, in pursuance of Habitat Agenda and the Millennium Development Goals. These initiatives of the Seoul Metropolitan Government are outstanding examples of effective planning and coordination of implementation. They have resulted in a positively wholesome impact on the living environment in the City of Seoul. They can, and must be replicated in other cities with similar attributes and situations.

Learning and Knowledge management

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world is at a cross road: the fight to combat poverty and climate change is to be won or lost in our cities. Cities, as much as they embody the challenges also offer the solutions. The hundreds of communities and cities whom we recognize for their good practices symbolize this potential. The challenge is that many cities in the developing world are not endowed with the capacity to harness and mobilize knowledge.

A sustainable city must be a learning city which is continuously exploring and innovating, sharing and networking. Universities and knowledge centres have much to contribute to this endeavour. Universities bring their knowledge and expertise, whilst cities offer them unique opportunities to link research and education with policy and practice. Recognizing this potential, UN-HABITAT, has recently launched the World Urban Campaign to harness and channel knowledge, expertise and experience in support of sustainable urbanisation.

A key initiative of this World Urban Campaign is the Habitat Partners University Initiative, an initiative meant to stimulate the exchange of lessons learned derived from cutting edge experience in sustainable urbanization and to integrate these lessons in the educational, policy making and practice arenas.

In this regard, we are proud to be associated with the International Urban Training Center hosted by Gangwon Province. It is a source of innovation and an opportunity for learning about sustainable urban development options. We see great potential for this Center as it broadens its programmes and expands its reach.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In closing, may I take this opportunity to invite you all to the fifth World Urban Forum to be held in Rio later this month. At the World Urban Forum the world converges to dialogue and exchange ideas on the urban challenges of our time. The theme for this session will be ‘“Cities for all – Bridging the Urban Divide”, a theme which is extremely topical in the context of the issues which I highlighted in my address today.

I would also like to encourage you to visit the United Nations pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, from May till October this year, which has for the first time in its history an urban theme, namely “Better Cities, Better Life”.

Finally, I would like to stress that the challenges facing cities with regard to climate change are numerous and daunting, and no entity, public or private, governmental or non-governmental, academic or practitioner, can face these challenges alone. I welcome all those who are committed to turning ideas into action to join us in our quest for more sustainable urban development.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.

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