SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

by Elsa Dominish, AVYLD 2017 delegate, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS

Cities are our social, cultural and economic centres. They can allow us to live efficient and sustainable lifestyles, and provide opportunities for diversity, productivity and innovation. Cities can provide a high quality of life and a seemingly endless number of choices. 

However, cities are marked by growing inequality. There are many people in cities who can’t access decent jobs, adequate services such as clean water and sanitation, and secure and affordable housing, particularly the nearly 1 billion people who live in informal urban settlements. This is also a problem in some of the worlds’ wealthiest cities – Australia’s largest cities are seeing growing levels of homelessness.

Increased urbanisation has also led to increased pressure on the environment. Cities may only cover a small area of land, but they consume natural resources, and they are doing so at an increasing rate. Cities consume up to 80% of energy and create 75% of waste and emissions. These resources are used to make the food we eat, the infrastructure, the roads and buildings and cars, and the products we depend on. This creates growing volumes of waste, most of it we try to hide away in landfills on the outskirts of our cities, or we sometimes we even export it to other countries. 

Cities are also associated with dangerous air pollution, which leads to an estimated 3.8 million premature deaths each year. Cars (and in Vietnam motorbikes) are the biggest contributor, followed by industrial pollution and the burning of coal for energy. 

There are solutions to address these problems and make cities safer and more sustainable, many of which rely on new technologies. But we need to make sure these new technologies, including shifting towards renewable energy and electrified transport systems, do not create an environmental problem elsewhere. These technologies will lead to increased mining and add to the growing volumes of e-waste.

Electric bikes, scooters, cars and buses are an important solution to reducing transport emissions and improving air quality. But they are made up of a complex mix of metals, many of which have only been previously mined in small amounts. These include cobalt, nickel and lithium for lithium-ion batteries and rare earths in the motors for electric vehicles. The metals for these technologies come from global supply chains, and can have environmental and human rights impacts if not mined responsibly, including heavy metal contamination, dangerous working conditions and child labour. Demand for these metals is likely to rise dramatically, and new mining is already happening to supply the materials for these technologies. These impacts, occurring far from where the technology is used, are a hidden cost of the benefit these technologies have for cities. 

E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream. If these technologies are not managed responsibly when they reach end-of-life, they can create a different set of health risks and environmental impacts. The informal recycling of e-waste in many parts of the world is done in hazardous working conditions and emits dangerous toxins, heavy metals and acid fumes into the surrounding environment, leading to severe illnesses. 

Our increasingly electrified and internet-connected cities can improve efficiency and reduce emissions, and increase quality of life. New technologies have an important part to play, but they do not guarantee sustainability. The supply chains of these technologies need to be appropriately managed, to avoid negative environmental health impacts for workers and local communities, in cities and the regions that they draw resources from. We also need to make sure cities are designed to be safe, affordable and inclusive, so that everyone is able to benefit.