The Paradigm Change: Urbanization as Tool to Mitigate Climate Change

By: Ollia Pappas

In recent decades, climate change has pushed its way forward as humanity’s most pressing problem. The devastating effects of climate change, such as melting glaciers, stronger hurricanes, and displacement of whole communities, have brought leaders from around the world together to brainstorm and draw up strategies to reduce its negative global effects. In past decades, scientists, planners, and those same world leaders viewed urbanization as a major problem that required remedying. At that time, it was the source of poverty, crime, and unprecedented greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, within the last few years there has been a paradigm change with respect to how governments and leaders approach urbanization. Instead of viewing it merely as a source of GHG emissions that needs controlling, leaders are beginning to view urbanization as a way to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Leaders have begun to realize urbanization’s benefits and have documented their ideological change in international documents, mainly the UN-Habitat’s “New Urban Agenda” and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Other international documents, while not directly touching on urbanization, can be used as tools to help achieve this new idea of a low-carbon, sustainable urban community. These documents include countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Most interestingly is how governments and their leaders are approaching this new paradigm change. While the U.S. has not yet fully embraced it, China has shown that they are willing to commit themselves to the strategies associated with its success. The oncoming years, therefore, will be crucial with respect to climate change. How the world and its governments embrace this new paradigm change will be extremely important in fight against climate change.

UN-Habitat, the UN entity responsible for dealing with urbanization-related issues, really cemented its position advocating urbanization as the new strategy to mitigate climate change effects in its 2016 revised draft publication called The New Urban Agenda (Agenda). The draft version of the New Urban Agenda articulates UN-Habitat’s proposed goals for the Habitat III conference coming up this October in Quito, Ecuador.[1] When asked what were the goals of Habitat III, Dr. Joan Clos, the Secretary of the Habitat III Conference, said, “The most important and interesting one is to make a paradigm shift in order to see urbanization as a tool for development instead of seeing urbanization as only an accumulation of problems.”[2] In its preamble, the New Urban Agenda goes on to explicitly state:

The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities. By 2050, the urban population alone will be larger than the current total world population, posing massive sustainability challenges in terms of housing, infrastructure, basic services, and jobs among others. There is a need for a radical paradigm shift in the way cities and human settlements are planned, developed, governed and managed. The decisions we make today will shape our common urban future. [3]

UN-Habitat is clearly beginning to realize the importance of sustainable cities and if built smartly can reduce humanity’s ecological footprint dramatically. While some countries have yet to fully embrace the paradigm change, China seems to have had no problem using it as a strategy to help reduce its GHG emissions in its INDC, the international document outlining countries’ legal strategies for reducing their GHG emissions. For example, in their INDCs, U.S., Brazil, and South Africa make no mention of using urbanization as way to reduce GHG emissions. The U.S. does highlight regulatory achievements it has made with respect to fuel economy standards for light- and heavy-duty vehicles as well as finalizing measures addressing building sector emissions,[4] but does not integrate urbanization as a separate strategy like China does.

China has embraced urbanization as a strategy, whether subconsciously or consciously, to reduce its GHG emissions in its INDC. In it, China included two relevant sections: “Controlling Emissions from Building and Transportation Sectors”[5] and “Promoting the Low-Carbon Way of Life.” [6] Under the latter section, China writes that it plans to “enhance education for all citizens on a low-carbon way of life and consumption, to advocate green, low-carbon, healthy and civilized way of life and consumption patterns and to promote low-carbon consumption throughout society.”[7] Under the first section, China writes that it plans “to embark on a new pattern of urbanization, optimizing the urban system and space layout, integrating the low-carbon development concept in the entire process of urban planning, construction and management and promoting the urban form that integrates industries into cities.”[8] It goes on to state that China plans to control emissions from buildings and the transportation sector by:

  • “Promot[ing] construction of green buildings and the application of renewable energy in buildings, improving low-carbon supporting facilities for equipping communities and exploring modes of low-carbon community operation and management”[9]
  • “Promot[ing] share of green buildings in newly built buildings of cities and towns reaching 50% by 2020”[10]
  • “Develop[ing] a green and low-carbon transportation system—giving priority to the development of public transportation and encouraging the development and use of low-carbon and environment-friendly means of transport”[11]
  • “Promot[ing] the share of public transport in motorized travel in big-and medium sized cities reaching 30% by 2020”[12]
  • “Promot[ing] development of a dedicated transport system for pedestrians and bicycles in cities and…advocat[ing] green travel”[13]

From the language in its INDC, China gives the impression that it is willing to commit itself to building green and constructing transit-oriented development; not only to green building, but also educating its citizens on a low-carbon lifestyle. Educating citizens on how to live a low-carbon lifestyle will be very important because knowledgeable and willing citizens are invaluable when it comes to reducing GHG emissions. If everyone is on board, more can be achieved. However, the success of China actually implementing these techniques will depend on its internal institutional capacity as well as smart policy planning.

     Combating climate change requires innovative thinking. We have to find a balance between reducing GHG emissions, the kind of lifestyle that people in today’s society are used to living, and capitalistic business tactics. This new paradigm change is one of those innovative strategies that has the ability to balance society’s most demanding needs. We no longer have to view urbanization as a huge problem that needs fixing; it can be part of the solution. Cities have the potential to reduce GHG emissions while also maintaining people’s lifestyles and improving overall standards of living. If more countries, especially big-country emitters like the U.S., embrace the strategies associated with paradigm change like China, GHG emissions will likely decrease dramatically in the future.


[1] At the conclusion of the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador on October 21, 2016, delegations formally adopted the September 10th, 2016 draft version of the New Urban Agenda. New Urban Agenda Adopted at Habitat III, UN-Habitat News (Oct. 21, 2016), (last visited Mar. 12, 2017).

[2] Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal, Habitat III, YOUTUBE (OCT. 6, 2015),

[3] United Nations Hum. Settlements Programme, Habitat III Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda 1, 1 (2016), (hereinafter “Habitat III Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda”).

[4]U.S. Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, at 4, (last visited Mar. 12, 2017).

[5] Department of Climate Change, Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, National Development & Reform Commission of China 1, 9 (2015),’s%20INDC%20-%20on%2030%20June%202015.pdf (hereinafter “Enhanced Actions on Climate Change).

[6] Id. at 11.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 9.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Enhanced Actions on Climate Change, supra note 76 at 10.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

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