On June 5 the whole world, including Bangladesh, observed and celebrated World Environment Day. We were reminded that raising environmental standards were essential given the important strategic role it plays within the paradigm of achieving Sustainable Development Goals. There were also media reports of the need to create a new global fund to invest in nurturing nature and shoring up the common fight directed against climate variability both in terms of adaptation and mitigation.
In Bangladesh particular focus was also given by different discussion panels on determining the required equation and dynamic that would inter-actively promote within the matrix -a beneficial outcome for meeting environmental requirements as well as growing industrial needs.
Attention needs to be drawn in this regard to environmental analysts like socio-economist and climatologist Filipe Ataíde Lampe who has been following the evolving environmental situation within Europe- both in the urban as well as in the rural areas. Such a course of action is also taking place in South Asia- which is home to nearly two billion people.
In particular, we in Bangladesh with a very small area and a high population- almost half that of the United States of America- feel that unless we are more careful, we might end up with serious ramifications. Such anxiety has grown over the past ten years with the steady migration of Bangladeshis from rural to urban areas in search of employment and educational opportunities. The total resident population of Bangladesh’s capital- Dhaka- is more than the total population of Belgium and it is continuing to rise.
In this context, one needs to remember that the higher the density, the greater the climate and environmental impact. Greenhouse gas emissions linked to inner-city transport, local industries and individual households then contribute to the growing urban climate footprint. Waste generation; urban sprawl; and air, noise, ground and water pollution add to the unsustainable record of the evolving urban paradigm. We have noticed such an emerging situation also in various parts of India, filled with mega-cities.
After the end of the Climate Conference held towards the end of last year in the UK and the different follow-up scenario, throughout Europe and North America, countries from Asia, Latin America and Africa have also been trying to find least common denominators pertaining to possible transition to a greener scenario that would assist how to mitigate cities’ negative effects on the climate and environment, and identify methods that would facilitate sustainable mobility instead.
The media has reported that certain non-governmental organizations and the civil society in Europe have been able to work out and draft measures that could target the EU’s broad climate, environment and health agendas. As for greening Europe’s cities, their measures have also focussed on three different aspects: (i) sustainable and safe road transport; (ii) placing nature at the heart of urban development; and (iii) expanding, restoring and protecting natural ecosystems in cities. One must admit that these factors can only be considered as significant. In this regard one also has to reiterate that climate change and climate vulnerability does not recognize borders. This also connotes that civil society and government representatives from South and South-East Asia need to carry on a systematic dialog with the European Union. Such a constructive engagement can only help every country and population who stand on the brink of major climate disaster.
We have noticed in the past two years major cities in Bangladesh and also India have been suffering from long tail-backs resulting from traffic congestion. This aspect has not only brought suffering and delay in movement but has also added to the air pollution due to addition of exhaust fumes from transport vehicles that are unfit to be on the roads.
This ball-game is being given particular attention in Europe and some cities in North America, Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan.
In the European Union- in some cities in Germany, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark the citizens have been correctly calling for prioritizing cyclists and pedestrians over vehicle drivers. Efforts in fact are underway to create more and safer bike lanes and extend car-free zones. Cyclists and other stakeholders of inner-city traffic, including bus transport drivers are being trained on road safety. Publicity is also being given to the greater use of green vehicles as their increase on the roads inside an urban area could make climate-friendly transport more attractive and safer for citizens.
In addition to such changes, measures are also being taken to create and sustain open spaces in the form of parks so that people can walk freely. Such a scenario would obviously be good for their health requirement. It may be noted that European cities according to climate activists have already established, by 2019, over 250 Low and Zero Emissions Zones and that this trend is on the ascendancy. This measure is being given importance to facilitate the achievement of the European Green Deal and its 90% reduction target by 2050. Hopefully, this will succeed.
Interestingly, to assist in achieving the EU's climate and environmental ambitions for urban areas, the EU is working on finalizing an important directive requiring urban development programmes to fulfill minimum standards of environmental requirements. In this regard attention is drawn to the fact that the ideal green building should rely on renewable energy sources, have low energy consumption and emit little carbon dioxide emission. Such an effort has been taken in the bigger Bangladesh cities for some time but has not however always functioned according to required rules. In other words, in Bangladesh, absence of accountability is casting a long shadow on our architectural projects.
One has to understand that Europe over the last fifteen years has been trying to move forward within this matrix through several milestones. This includes the Leipzig Charter (2007), the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 (2011) and the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 (2020).
The European Commission and the European Council have also been trying to allocate necessary funds for this purpose. It has already proposed allocating at least Euro 20 billion a year to incentivize private investments which promote ‘urban green infrastructure’ and have also extended their support for the EU’s biodiversity protection programme, Natura 2000.
The 2030 Strategy has also urged cities of over 20,000 inhabitants to develop their own Urban Greening Plan before 2022. These plans will cover the creation of ‘green urban spaces’ for social and environmental well-being (e.g. parks, forests, urban farms, green roofs) and be interactively coordinated under the Green City Accord. Relevant authorities in Bangladesh should also try and target the implementation of required steps in our rural areas at the Thana level. It will require coordination – and this can be undertaken at the Upazila level. The next step would be to bring it up to the District level and ensure that there is required coordination emerging through urban development.
One has to understand that this will be delicate in nature and the transformation process related to the environment will require commitment. We could ask the EU to assist us in this regard. We can learn from them how they are extending conservation areas of biodiversity and natural ecosystems and strengthening the rule of law protecting them from human interference. If followed carefully, such measures will ideally create, according to Filipe Ataíde Lampe, of the European Policy Centre “a direct link between cities and the protected areas. Protecting, restoring and expanding green urban areas can then promote the visibility and acceptance of natural ecosystems”. The analyst has also reiterated that “policymakers at all levels must also consider the needs and livelihood of wildlife and incorporate them into their urban planning”. This would be very pertinent in the case of different rural areas in Bangladesh, particularly- the Sundarbans area, and also Nepal and India.
It has been noted by Bangladesh’s civil society associated with climate change, that adaptation and mitigation measures are important. In several discussions it has been pointed out that local governments at the primary levels need to take more active interest in its engagement in the rural areas. They have to be the key player in channeling investments and establishing a level playing field for sustainable transformation, providing technical guidance, and nurturing positive competition between cities. While doing so, there will also have to be transparency in the decision making, implementation process and accountability with regard to financial outlays, technical cooperation and foreign investment.
We need to understand that the citizens of every country want not only their cities to be ‘greener’ but also for the existing ecosystems and species to be protected through biodiversity protection. There also needs to be combined efforts that will target urban biodiversity protection. This will enable cities and municipalities to make their inner-city nature more visible to their inhabitants and promote environmental training and urban gardening initiatives. In this regard one has to acknowledge all the efforts that have been undertaken for the past few years by the Channel-i TV Channel in identifying and promoting efforts directed towards roof agriculture and gardening in and around Dhaka- a significant environmental exercise.
Although not directly related, one, in this regard has to also refer to the United Nations recent Convention to Combat Desertification’s Global Land Outlook which warns that only through protection of existing ecosystems and revival of degraded lands and soils will biodiversity loss be halted and pandemic-risk reduction can be achieved. This suggests that we must attach more importance to pollution. We also need to remember that land and forests are both finite resources. They have to be looked after carefully so that there is sustainable conservation. This will then ensure ecosystem health, food security and stable livelihoods.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance