In line with the historic decisions towards tackling biodiversity loss by 2030 made at the recent UN CBD COP15 in Montréal, the global community is becoming increasingly aware of the interlinkages between the well-being of people, healthy functioning ecosystems, climate mitigation and adaptation and economic prosperity. Given that these social and environmental challenges are becoming more complex and intertwined, the preparedness to respond to such challenges should also be a shared responsibility across sectors, including different levels of government. With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, cities play a crucial role when addressing short-term and long-term environmental and social risks.

Shifting the risk landscape

To understand what the shared responsibility of preparedness can entail, governments first need to understand the projected short- and long-term risks their communities might face. The Global Risks Report 2023 released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January 2023, highlights the global risk landscape based on a Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) and insights from 1,200+ experts from business, government, academia and civil society to project potential adverse impacts on communities, societies, businesses and individuals at 2023, 2025 and 2033 intervals. In the report “global risk” is defined as “the possibility of the occurrence of an event or condition which, if it occurs, would negatively impact a significant proportion of global GDP, population or natural resources”.

According to the report, the major short-term concern is a rising “cost of living”, followed by  “natural disasters and extreme weather”, “geoeconomic confrontation”, and “failure to mitigate climate change” . However, more long-term, “failure of climate-change mitigation”, “failure of climate-change adaptation”, “natural disasters and extreme weather events”, and “biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse” are viewed as the four biggest global risks over the next decade. Although “biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse” was not perceived as a pressing concern by GRPS respondents over the short term, its perceived severity increased from 18th to 4th place over the longer-term 10-year time frame. 

Preparedness as shared responsibility 

The Global Risks Report 2023 not only addresses perceived risk, but also preparedness to address these global and increasingly complex challenges. In particular, the report calls for preparedness to be an increasingly shared responsibility between sectors, that enables local governments, international organizations, businesses and civil society to play their crucial roles in collaboration with national governments. In essence, this means that stakeholders need to drive impact through collective action.

One of the key players in managing socio-environmental risks are local governments. In particular, local authorities and municipalities have experience in tackling existing challenges such as the “collapse or lack of public infrastructure and services”, which is also recorded as a notable risk in the report. The current threats to public infrastructure are predicted to intensify under extreme weather events and natural disasters, which are being exacerbated by climate change. In response, the use of nature-based solutions or ecosystem-based approaches could provide important alternative infrastructure solutions that can contribute to reducing this risk. 

Cities and local governments are well-placed to embrace alternative options such as nature-based solutions, because they are more agile than national governments when developing and adopting new policy instruments and plans to address environmental issues. They can implement these changes quicker and easier than their national counterparts, and through their actions demonstrate to national governments, academia, civil society and the private sector, what is possible at the local scale, with the aim to replicate and upscale these options across regions and countries.

Resilient and adaptive cities across all scenarios

The report creates four different scenarios for 2030, based on the idea that present and future environmental, geopolitical and socioeconomic risks can also interact with one another to form a “polycrisis”. These scenarios are informed by the levels of global cooperation and the impact of climate change on the supply of natural resources. 

The framework is built on two global drivers – geoeconomic confrontation and speed of climate action – to create four possible futures that may exist by 2030. Despite the high levels of international collaboration and mitigation of climate change impacts evident in the best-case scenario, a scarcity of some resources, such as water, food and minerals remains. These persistent challenges across all scenarios are difficulties that will need to be addressed by all levels of government.

An example of the suitability of local governments to respond to resource scarcity is that of the City of Cape Town in South Africa’s approach to Day Zero, by implementing ecosystem-based approaches to improve water security. Faced with droughts and water scarcity, the city embarked on an intensive programme of removing alien vegetation in its water catchment areas as the most cost-effective approach in managing water quality and quantity. This has led to a considerable increase in yield of additional water each year at a tenth of the costs of the next cheapest option for the same level of yield.

COP15 decisions call for whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to manage risks to biodiversity 

Local and subnational governments’ key role in managing environmental risks was solidified  in December 2022 at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) in Montréal, Canada. Notably, 11 historic decisions were adopted which highlight the importance of including cities and regional governments in contributing to the implementation of the Kunming Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) by 2030, and achieving the framework’s 23 action-oriented targets. 

The Framework urges Parties of the Convention to enable participation of all levels of government and all of society to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Of the 23 targets, six are relevant to cities and subnational governments to achieve this objective: 

  • Target 2, which aims to ensure that by 2030 at least 30% of areas of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems are under effective restoration; 
  • Target 3, which aims to ensure and enable that by 2030 at least 30% of terrestrial, inland water, and of coastal and marine areas, is effectively conserved and managed; 
  • Target 7, which is concerned with reducing pollution risks and the negative impact of pollution from all sources to levels that are not harmful to biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services by 2030; and 
  • Target 11, which seeks to restore, maintain and enhance nature’s contributions to people, including ecosystem functions and services, such as the regulation of air, water and climate, soil health, pollination and reduction of disease risk, as well as protection from natural hazards and disasters, through nature-based solutions and/or ecosystem-based approaches for the benefit of all people and nature.
  • Target 12 urges for increasing the area, quality and connectivity, and improving access to and benefits from green and blue spaces in urban areas. This can be achieved by mainstreaming the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity; ensuring biodiversity-inclusive urban planning; and enhancing ecological connectivity and integrity thereby improving human health and well-being and connection to nature, and contributing to inclusive and sustainable urbanization, and the provision of ecosystem functions and services. Referring to ‘within and across all levels of government’, 
  • Target 14 aims specifically at addressing biodiversity mainstreaming by seeking to ensure that biodiversity issues are integrated into policies, regulations, planning and different strategies within and across all levels of government to make cities and regions more livable places.

Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans can support long-term risk management and use of nature-based solutions

The adopted decision 15/12 Engagement with subnational governments, cities and other local authorities to enhance implementation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and the renewed, more ambitious Plan of Action for 2022-2030 guides Parties and their local and subnational governments in the implementation the GBF and facilitating all levels of government involvement in the revision, implementation and reporting related to National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans. 

The final decision CBD/COP/DEC/15/12 has now officially been published on the Convention on Biological Diversity website.

This 15/12 Decision represents the only mechanism for multilevel governance in the three Rio Conventions, namely CBD, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and comprises a comprehensive plan of action for the decade ahead to contribute to the whole of government management of global and local environmental risks. 

Regarding the management of risks that are outlined in the Global Risks Report, this decision can help local governments to manage environmental risks sustainably in the long term, in collaboration with their national and subnational governments. Cities are encouraged to introduce nature-based solutions and/or ecosystem-based approaches in their disaster risk reduction strategies to build resilience in landscapes and communities. For example, the World Bank recently published cases of cities from Colombia (Bogota), Sri Lanka (Colombo) and Mozambique (Beira) using nature-based solutions to reduce the impact of flooding, mudslides and other disasters. 

In another example, the Urban Nature Atlas, developed in 2017 as an output of the Naturvation project (a Horizon 2020 research project), tells the story of how Medellin, Colombia, a CitiesWithNature city, began implementing a green strategy in 2008 with the aim of creating a greenbelt around the city to address several land-use, social justice and ecological challenges – including disaster risk reduction. These included solutions aimed to: restrain unregulated growth and sprawl in the hillsides around the city; and nature-based solutions to protect water basins and forests key to the region’s biodiversity; control climate change effects, and reduce risks of landslides during extreme weather events.

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