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Build greener to tackle climate change, Arab cities urged

by Dina Zayed | @dinaz15 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 December 2014 13:16 GMT

People walk in front of a wall surrounding blocks of houses that were built illegally and destroyed by the Egyptian government, south of Cairo, April 25, 2014. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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Rapid urbanisation piles stress on social services and infrastructure in region already vulnerable to warming

By Dina Zayed

CAIRO, Dec 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cities in the Arab region should introduce stronger standards for green building and promote sustainable communities if they are to have a chance of tackling climate change, experts say.

The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT) estimates that 56 percent of the Arab world's population already lives in cities and urban centres, a proportion that more than quadrupled between 1990 and 2010.

It is expected to shoot up to 75 percent by 2050.

The speed of the urbanisation process has put additional stress on social services and infrastructure in a region already deeply vulnerable to climate change.

"Climate change forces upon us all a serious discussion on green building and the promotion of sustainability," Egypt's Minister of Housing and Urban Development Mostafa Madbouly told the Arab world's first Forum for Sustainable Communities and Green Building this month. "This is no longer a luxury."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects hotter, drier and less predictable climate patterns across the region, which could reduce water run-off by 20 to 30 percent in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa by 2050.

Water and food shortages, particularly in urban centres, are expected to be among the most defining challenges.

The Arab world already suffers disproportionately from extreme heat. A recent World Bank study, Turn Down the Heat, found that if the global temperature rises by 4 degrees Celsius, the average number of hot days is forecast to exceed 115 per year in the region's cities.

Unprecedented heat extremes could affect 70 to 80 percent of the land area in the Middle East and North Africa, it noted.

But experts say stronger governance and planning could help reduce this vulnerability.

"We need to change our approach to urbanisation. Instead of talking about problems, we must see urbanisation as an instrument," UN-HABITAT Executive Director Joan Clos told the forum.

One response is to improve green infrastructure. Several cities across the Arab region, like Beirut and Riyadh, have made attempts to adopt green building codes.

Egyptian authorities told the forum they are working to finalise licensing standards that would help ensure new buildings cut their emissions and electricity consumption.

The buildings sector is responsible for more than 40 percent of global energy use and one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, the U.N. estimates.


But adopting clear standards to improve construction is no easy task in a region where city governance is generally centralised, with primary responsibility falling on national governments and little or no capacity in municipalities.

In a region where cities contribute nearly 92 percent of gross domestic product, there is a great deal of diversity among them. But in many, weak governance has allowed the simultaneous growth of informal settlements.

That makes the task of setting and enforcing building regulations even more difficult, as well as hampering the ability to monitor changes to a city's make-up.

Red-brick towers have sprouted in Egypt's capital, for example. From above, Cairo looks almost red, representing what Egyptians recognise as the colour of unlicensed construction.

At least two thirds of Cairo's population live in neighbourhoods that have sprung up since 1950, mostly devoid of planning or control.

But informal settlements need not be an obstacle, according to Egypt's Minister of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements Laila Iskandar. Rather they are a space where the creative resourcefulness of residents can be tapped, she said.

One example of an entrepreneurial group is Cairo's informal waste collectors, who recycle more than 80 percent of what they gather, she noted.

"We need to strengthen capacities where they exist. In informal areas, we have a golden opportunity to adopt a paradigm shift towards more sustainability," she argued.


A bigger challenge to sustainable cities rests in inefficient, high-intensity energy use across the industrial and service sectors, both concentrated in urban areas.

Wasteful consumption, particularly in the Arab Gulf monarchies, already sucks in more energy on a per capita basis than most other parts of the world.

Across the region, industry is the most energy-hungry sector, accounting for around 45 percent of consumption. In absolute terms, eight of the world's 10 most energy-intensive economies are Arab countries, according to research for the 2012 Arab Human Development Report.

"Energy efficiency is the solution to solving energy crises," said Kurt Wiesegart, team leader of an EU-financed energy-efficiency project for the construction sector in the Mediterranean. "Governments must put in place clear and strategic plans that support energy efficiency reforms or consumption will continue to go unchecked."

With large subsidies effectively eliminating incentives for private and business transport to cut their use of fuel, the Arab world also wastes revenues on inefficient modes of transport and does not invest enough in public transport upgrades, a key component of sustainable cities.

A 2007 McKinsey study found that, of the world's potential to make energy-efficiency savings in the road sector, one third alone could be met from the elimination of fuel subsidies in the economies of the Middle East and Venezuela.

"We have a lot of challenges but also opportunities," said Hussein Abaza, a senior adviser to Egypt's environment minister.

"There is a great deal of policy initiative but it is not always coherent and in many cases, it is incomplete. If green growth is to have a chance, we must work to address that."

(Reporting by Dina Zayed; editing by Megan Rowling)

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