Asian City Growth: "Elephant in the Room" for Climate Change, Environmental Devastation

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Asian cities will be responsible for more than half of the world's increase in greenhouse gases over the next 20 years, according to a study from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

What's worse is that little is being done to regulate this increase not only in carbon, but also in water use, waste production and large-scale health impacts on urban populations and beyond.

Never has the need been greater for combining urban planning with the best management approaches and technologies in everything from transportation, construction, water use and treatment, regional food and energy production, and energy efficiency.

From the helter skelter expansion of cities in China, India and Bangladesh into the surrounding countryside to the precipitous rise in transport-related air pollution in Beijing, Jakarta, Manila and Shanghai, to massive loads of untreated or inadequately treated wastewater and air pollution, the impacts are already taking a staggering toll, climate change aside.

The urban sustainability innovation of developed or developing nations can be applied in some cases to Asian cities, particularly Amsterdam (bicycle and pedestrian planning); Portland, Oregon (green building, metropolitan area growth boundaries); London (congestion pricing); Bogota (Bus Rapid Transit, already making inroads in Beijing) and San Francisco (development of zero waste).

The nature of Asian cities, however, makes it difficult to simply transfer best management practices, because of inherent structural, political and economic limitations.

Take land use and planning. Only 10-20% of Asian land transactions are formally registered and in most cities more than 50% of urbanites live on land where title is disputed, so more sustainable land use planning and zoning measures, such as transit-oriented development, are loaded with cultural issues related to the rights of landless people

Other major disasters-in-waiting:

  • Water Supply: There is no ready drinking water for over 50% of urban residents in Asia.  Already severe water shortages have hit cities in India (Andhra, India ran out completely in 2002) and northern China. Beijing has millions more people than it can currently supply water for, its population is growing and water supplies are diminishing because of global climate change, while also becoming increasingly contaminated.
  • Wastewater: In China, only 16% of wastewater is treated. The raw sewage not only pollutes local drinking water supplies, but also threatens coastal fisheries that provide much of the protein in people's diets. Sixty percent of the world's population lives within 60 miles of the coast. By 2025, the majority of Asia's growing numbers of Megacities (10 million+) will be on coastal waters, putting untold stress on fisheries.
  • Health: Poor environmental conditions are globally responsible for 25% of preventable health problems, with two-thirds of those cases being children. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Asian cities. The World Bank estimates that deaths and illnesses from China's air pollution cost the nation 5% of its GDP annually.
  • Transportation: "Managing Asian Cities" asserts that the maintenance of viable densities for effective public transportation, biking and walking is the key to urban sustainability in Asian cities. If these metropolitan areas go the US Sunbelt car-only sprawl route (e.g., 8.4 daily car trips per household in exurban Los Angeles-San Bernardino), game over.
  • Energy: Urbanites use energy more intensely than rural residents. In China this means that coal fired power plants are being built at a pace of 50 a year to keep up with urban and manufacturing growth.
  • Land Use and Planning: Asian cities are increasingly merging into regional corridors and clusters (Hong Kong-Shenzen-Guangdong is on track to having 120 million people by 2010). This growth, much of it unplanned, creates spatial management issues never before experienced.  
  • Solid Waste: Most Asian cities use open dumps, and only about 10% of these wastes end up in properly engineered and managed landfills. In the cities of developing regions, solid waste is usually organic and recycleable, but as urbanites move "up the consumption ladder" (Malaysia and South Korea) to more processed and packaged products, recycling becomes more difficult and waste volumes equal those of urban areas in developed nations.        
The report, "Managing Asian Cities," was written by Michael Lindfield and Royston Brockman of the Asian Development Bank. With Asian urban population increasing 1.8 billion the next 40 years, I implore anyone interested in our global fate to consider how advances in urban sustainability can be applied to Asia and other developing Megaregions.

Next post I will address some of the emerging solutions that may help Asian cities continue being the drivers of national economies, hopefully without bringing down the natural and cultural systems upon which their economies are ultimately based.    

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About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Warren Karlenzig published on September 1, 2009 10:24 AM.

Global Environment Forum Recap: Commit to Copenhagen and Build Green Cities or Face Planetary Disaster was the previous entry in this blog.

Where are New Green Cities and How Can They Curb Asian Greenhouse Gas Emissions? is the next entry in this blog.

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