Why Sydney's a model for sustainable cities

Cities can make or break global sustainable development and climate goals, and one city that can serve as a role model for green, inclusive growth is Sydney, according to former Irish president Mary Robinson.

The global community has recently adopted new goals to fight climate change and poverty through sustainable development, but urban growth threatens to undermine these aims as cities become the largest sources of carbon emissions and exacerbate income inequality.

One city that has achieved low-carbon and inclusive growth, and can be a role model for sustainable and equitable development worldwide is Sydney, Australia, said former president of Ireland Mary Robinson on Thursday.  

Speaking at a City of Sydney event, Robinson, who is also head of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, told an audience of more than 1,500 at the State Theatre that the city’s urban strategy “provides an opportunity to tackle inequality while achieving sustainability”.  

“The city is a leader on the pathway to a 1.5 degrees Celsius world,” added Robinson, referring to the agreement inked by global leaders at the UN climate summit in Paris last December, which aims to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 deg C, and ideally under 1.5 deg C.

The city in 2007 launched its Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategy, which comprises a set of goals such as reducing carbon emissions by 70 per cent and operating the city entirely on renewable energy by 2030.

The roadmap is unique because it was produced by gathering feedback from tens of thousands of Sydney residents and visitors through several public consultation exercises, rather than just a few elite policymakers dictating the project, said Robinson as she praised the city’s focus on people’s needs and human rights.  

Speaking at the same event, Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney, said that once the vision had been articulated by the community, “we set about delivering the kind of city that people told us they wanted”.

Initiatives the city has implemented include the Smart Green Business Programme, which helps small and medium businesses improve their environmental performance and save money. Between 2014 and 2015, this programme engaged 79 business to deliver 200 million litres of water savings and divert 2,400 tonnes of waste from landfill.

Meanwhile, the Better Buildings Partnership - where the city government works with building owners and tenants to reduce the sector’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions - is halfway to its 70 per cent carbon emissions reduction target, reports the city.

The city has also rolled out several social initiatives including a plan to rename some historic buildings and natural spaces with Aboriginal words to bring Sydney’s original language back into everyday use, and providing financial and in-kind support for about 30 community festivals which attracted a combined audience of over 2.5 million people.

Robinson noted that such achievements and Sydney’s approach to growth are a good showcase of how a city can achieve a key Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on urbanisation. The SDGs are a United Nations-led initiative consisting of 17 targets adopted by governments last September that have come into effect this January. 

The 11th goal is to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.  

While most of the world’s cities and countries are only beginning to figure out plans to implement the SDGs, Sydney has had a head start, said Robinson, who has also been the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and special envoy for climate change. 

It should share its expertise with other cities struggling to balance sustainability and inclusive growth, she suggested. Programmes such as the C40 network and the Climate Neutral Cities Alliance are ideal avenues for this. 

To show solidarity with cities facing similar sustainable development challenges but have less resources to address them, Sydney could also become the second city in the world after Paris to contribute to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), said Robinson.   

GCF is an international mechanism within the United Nations climate change agency to support low-income and developing countries in mitigating, and adapting to, climate change. It aims to raise US$100 billion a year in funding by 2020. 

(Sydney) is a leader on the pathway to a 1.5 degrees Celsius world.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and founder, Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice

Reaching the farthest behind first 

But sustainable urbanisation is just one of 17 goals the global community has to achieve by 2030. Other pressing priorities include ending poverty worldwide and taking urgent action to slow down climate change.  

The latter goal was a controversial inclusion in the SDGs, shared Robinson, who was involved in the process of drafting the goals. This was because people argued that there was already a UN agency for dealing with climate change, the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).

But poverty eradication and financial security are impossible without climate action, said Robinson, pointing to the widespread destruction and economic losses caused by Cyclone Winston, which swept across Fiji in February.  

“Zero carbon and zero poverty are complementary goals,” she said, noting that many of the actions needed to improve human well-being and mitigate climate change are one and the same. 

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, can also improve human health, while creating better transport systems in cities can lead to low-carbon urban growth.  

Countries should also consider tackling climate and social justice, said Robinson. This is a development approach which focuses on human rights aims to protect the most vulnerable people by ensuring that the costs and benefits of climate change are shared fairly.

This entails creating strategies that are inclusive of everyone’s views and human rights, especially those of marginalised groups such as people with disabilities, the elderly, and young children. 

To some extent, the SDGs strive for this through their pledge to “leave no one behind”, but it is equally important to reach the farthest behind first, noted Robinson. 

Also speaking at the event, journalist and editor Stan Grant noted that in Australia, one group which falls into the ‘farthest behind’ category is indigenous communities, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

“Indigenous people are systemically locked out of mainstream economies,” said Grant. The expected lifespan of an Aboriginal Australian is 10 years shorter than the national average, and although indigenous people make up less than three per cent of the country’s population, a quarter of all prisoners are Aboriginal, he said.  

Climate change exacerbates the margnalisation of indigenous people even further, added Robinson. 

Indigenous communities all over the world - whether Aboriginal communities in rural Australia, Inuit families living close to the Arctic ice or forest tribes in South America - are more vulnerable to climate change because of where they live, she noted.  

It is a “huge injustice” that these communities bear the brunt of climate change impacts - in the form of disrupted agricultural cycles or droughts, for example - because they are least responsible for carbon emissions, she said.

This uneven distribution of climate impacts underscores the need to give vulnerable and poor communities the resources they need to deal with climate change, and for wealthier nations to cut their emissions dramatically, noted Robinson.

“A people-centred approach is what climate justice demands, and what contributes to real results,” she said. 

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