Can we reduce urban poverty and inequality and achieve net zero cities?

This year, World Habitat Day focuses on how cities can develop practical, workable plans for a carbon-free world. Over half the world’s population live in urban areas, so it’s unsurprising that cities are responsible for 75% of carbon emissions. Anna Walnycki and Tucker Landesman explain why efforts to achieve zero carbon cities will only be successful if they simultaneously address pervasive urban poverty and inequalities.

Anna Walnycki's picture Tucker Landesman's picture
Anna Walnycki is a senior researcher and Tucker Landesman is researcher, both in IIED's Human Settlements research group
03 October 2021
Aerial view of a slum.

Aerial view of Villa 20, one of the largest slums in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Photo: copyright Instituto de la Vivienda de la Ciudad)

Over a billion people live in informal settlements with inadequate access to decent, affordable housing and basic services.

Given cities’ huge carbon footprint and the global push for decarbonisation, efforts to guarantee housing, services and economic opportunities must also integrate mitigation measures. Urban development and low-carbon agendas must be intertwined to achieve long-term sustainability and avoid exacerbating social, economic and environmental inequalities.

Towards urban climate justice: decarbonising the city…

The increasingly severe effects of climate breakdown – for example more frequent and intense storms, extreme heat and flooding – disproportionately hurt the urban poor across the global North and South.

Consequently, much of the debate on climate justice in cities continues to focus on adaptation and calls on wealthy countries and multilateral donors to increase and decentralise investments and aid for climate adaptation projects. There has been less focus on aligning efforts to tackle urban poverty and inequality with climate mitigation efforts at city level.

…but policies to decarbonise need people buy-in

Actions to decarbonise cities affect all urban residents and need widespread buy-in.

Transformative policies are urgently needed to radically alter how we consume, work, move about the city and live in our homes. But unless such policies are shaped around the needs of ordinary citizens, responses will be top-down and – failing to respond to local contexts – more likely to backfire, potentially deepening social and economic inequalities.

In 2018, disruptive protests broke out in countries as diverse as France, Brazil, and Haiti over fuel tax hikes and cuts to fuel subsidies. France’s proposed carbon tax on diesel was explicitly connected to its global climate commitments but despite wide public support for more ambitious climate action, the proposal was fiercely rejected in the streets by urban populations who saw the policy as a regressive attack on their quality of life during a period of widening inequality.

Efforts to accelerate climate mitigation must tackle and not exacerbate existing urban inequalities.

Integrating decarbonising measures into slum upgrading programmes

One in seven people live in informal settlements globally, most without decent housing, sanitation, water and other basic services. Solutions are often straightforward, but local governments struggle to pay for the upgrading required to meet the fundamental needs and rights of these populations.

Already strained local governments may view the imperative to decarbonise cities as yet another hard-to-deliver mandate. And climate actions are often siloed away from economic planning and development efforts.

But simultaneously advancing agendas to decarbonise, reduce poverty and tackle inequality presents an opportunity to respond to urban financing, planning and governance challenges that have undermined efforts to promote more inclusive forms of urbanisation and slum upgrading programmes.

Green slum upgrading programmes need to be supported by adequately resourced and inclusive governance arrangements that address burdens facing low-income urban communities while also seeking to secure widespread support for a future with radically reduced fossil fuels.

Truly transformative decarbonisation tackles inequality too

As part of the IKI-funded Transformative Urban Coalition programme, IIED and partners are supporting climate actions to deliver inclusive, zero-carbon cities.

Pilot interventions in low-income neighbourhoods might include the use of sustainable materials and building practices that maximise natural light and airflow or more greening public spaces to combat the urban heat island effect, improve air quality and extend the social and psychological benefits of green space throughout the city.

IIED is working with our long-standing partner IIED America Latina (in Spanish) to establish an urban lab in Buenos Aires, focused on understanding how an in-situ participatory slum upgrading programme in Villa 20 – which is already delivering improved housing and basic services – can embed and scale up decarbonising interventions.

Urban labs are also being established in cities in Brazil and Mexico with our partners World Resources Institue (WRI), German Development Institute (DIE) and United Nations University (UNU-EHS).

Since households in informal settlements have low-carbon footprints compared to those in more affluent parts of a city, low-income communities should not face disproportionate burdens to reduce their emissions.

Rather, poorer neighbourhoods should be prioritised for green investments, and interventions to upgrade infrastructure and improve services should adopt low-carbon technologies that improve residents’ quality of life for generations to come.

Over the next four years, the Transformative Urban Coalition programme will seek to answer practical questions such as: what would a low-carbon informal settlement-upgrading intervention look like? How can communities work with key city stakeholders to co-produce climate neutral transformation while responding to housing and basic service needs? How can our approaches build on decades of experience of on-site participatory upgrading strategies developed by organised federations of the urban poor?