Fossil-free and car-free cities – utopia or the future?

Bikes for hire in Bangkok © Creative CommonsClean air and clean water are the main things citizens want for their health and wellbeing as residents in a sustainable city, according to a recent global survey conducted by WWF.
 
Clean air, however, has become a scarce commodity in our world as recently reported by the World Health Organization (WHO). If we combine this urgent health call, with our need to combat climate change, it boils down to the same solution – electrified vehicles and renewables instead of fossil fuels. 

Change our cities

Maybe we should start by changing our cities. Since this is where we encounter the worst outdoor air pollution, and cities cause more than 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Cities and their citizens desire positive change. According to our survey, 90 percent think it is important to live in a sustainable city. If cities and decision makers play their cards wisely, we have a huge opportunity to get healthier cities – and at the same time combat climate change.
 
Clean air is top priority 

When asked what was most important to their health and wellbeing in a sustainable city, citizens from four countries (U.S., Mexico, India and Sweden) agreed that clean air was top priority.  This should come as no surprise as according to the WHO: 92% of the world's population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits! Air pollution causes one in nine deaths worldwide and kills more people than wars. Outdoor air pollution is especially aggravated in our cities and mainly caused by use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels of course also cause global warming, which is already having catastrophic consequences with elevated sea levels, exacerbated flooding, storms and extreme temperatures – effects which will accelerate. If we want to live in harmony with the one and only planet we have, we need to rapidly make the right decisions towards a fossil-free and healthy future.
 
Can we replace the most carbon-intensive and polluting sources that run our cities, such as coal and heavy-duty diesel, with lower-emission or renewable alternatives? Of course, we can! Renewable energy is rapidly increasing across the planet, becoming cheaper than fossil-based energy. We urgently need to let go of old power structures if we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050, at the latest. Decision makers at all levels must take responsibility and quickly steer towards a society based on efficient, renewable energy, produced in a sustainable way, without serious impact on human health, and biodiversity.

Sustainable mobility systems are key

One step in that direction is to make powerful changes to support sustainable mobility systems – especially in cities where better alternatives are easily possible. Are we ready to let go of our car addiction? Well, in the long run, we have to. Transportation stands for nearly a quarter of global GHG emissions. The electrification of the automotive fleet is important, but we also need to reduce car dependency.

To get there, we need to envision what transformational cities would look like. Cities need to invest in innovative urban development solutions and find smart new mobility solutions. Nor should they forget that some of the best options have been around for 200 years, like the bicycle. And designing a city transport system around the bicycle can ensure systems are built at the human scale, supporting interaction, exercise and climate-friendly transportation.

New urban mobility standards required for cities

Given high competition for land in a city – and cognizant that moving cars and the parking lots that store them take considerably more city space than bicycles or buses – we need a new urban mobility standard, where city spaces are divided in a more equitable and climate-friendly manner. Planning cities on a human scale offers climate benefits and reduces air pollution at the same time – not to mention the opportunity for active and healthier citizens when walking or cycling become standard mobility options.
 
WWF supports the development of One Planet Cities around the globe. These are cities where residents can have a healthy and high quality of life –  balanced within the framework of our planet's ecological constraints. Given that globally we consume the resource load of 1.6 planets, we are far from a "one planet society" – but it is encouraging that urban citizens, and many of their cities, increasingly want and commit to more sustainable alternatives. 
 
Now it is up to our leaders to react – and leadership needs to come from our cities, via the representation of their citizens who have strongly voiced support for more sustainable cities.
 
Jennifer Lenhart PhD, WWF-Sweden.
  
Facts about the survey: The survey was conducted by Syno International and includes 4000 national representatives and randomly selected respondents in the United States, Mexico, India and Sweden. The interviews were made in online panels in April 2018.

Get SCCS updates