The social origin of global warming

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings and also with the prospects of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Cities of the future. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.  

Climate Change | National Geographic Society

As the map below shows, poorer countries have already suffered more from global warming because they are located in the warmest parts of the world, like Africa, South Asia, and Central America. It also applies to the southern and poorest part of the US.

Country-level economic impact of global warming – Image National Academy of Sciences

There is another reality to face. Not only the poorest countries will suffer most from climate change, they hardly can be blamed for it. A recent Oxfam report Extreme carbon inequality shows that the poorest half of the world population – around 3.5 billion people – is responsible for only 10% of total global emissions from individual consumption. About 50% of the emissions come from the richest 10% of people around the world. They have an average carbon footprint that is 11 times as high as that of the poorest half, and 60 times as high as that the poorest 10%. Even a 50% reduction in consumption by the top 10% and a doubling of consumption by the lower 50% would result in a worldwide decrease of consumption of about 15%[1]. Within all countries, the production of greenhouse gasses varies with income. 

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Per capita consumption-related emissions in G20 countries

The graph shows that the concept of rich versus poor countries is partly misleading. A small part of the population of all countries has affluent and still-growing opportunity to consume and to contribute to the production of greenhouse gasses; the majority of the population stays far behind.

This national elites with its numerous connections with international business and politics have prevented adequate social and environmental policies for more than half a century, including the only measures that could have prevented global warming, namely the internalization of external costs[2] and in particular carbon tax[3]. The result: the economic prospects of the majority of the global population stay behind and moreover it will suffer most from global warming.


[1] https://www-cdn.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en.pdf

[2] https://medium.com/@aimunm83/want-to-solve-climate-change-solve-the-economy-ce516e31d361

[3] https://medium.com/the-sensible-soapbox/british-columbias-carbon-tax-is-working-3ea81114be5a

Cities are unhealthy places but poverty makes it worse.

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of urban life but also with the prospects of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplementary reading included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.  

Polluted air: Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

During the last decades, health has improved significantly. Globally, between 1990 and 2015, the worldwide mortality rate of children below the age of 5 dropped from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births to 43. But this is an average and hiding large differences between countries and within countries as the graph below illustrates[1].

Under 5-year child mortality rate – Source: The Urban Disadvantage, 2015.

The global decrease in child mortality resulted from successfully combatting infectious diseases, better medical care, more breastfeeding, measles vaccination, vitamin A supplementation, and the use of impregnated mosquito nets. At the same time, the AIDS epidemic threatened to reverse the progress made, in particular in eastern and southern Africa[2]. Moreover, in developing countries in particular, improvements in health of the poorest groups were not accompanied by improvement of income, job opportunities and living conditions, which resulted in a huge and persistent increase in family size, making the poverty even worse. 

The poverty of the rural population in developing and emerging countries triggered an unprecedented urbanization. Unfortunately, cities appeared to be unhealthy places, in particular migrants and other poor inhabitants. Infectious diseases are still widespread. In developing countries, they are associated with the lack of sanitation and drinking water. The presence of mosquitos is a lasting danger. Polluted air is threatening health in each city. According to the Global Burden of Diseases Study of the World Health Organization, 4.2 million deaths worldwide every year are caused by particulate pollution[3].

India

Take India for example. Air pollution is the direct cause of 627.000 deaths annually. Moreover, an official study of 1,405 cities reveals that only 50% of urban areas have water supply connections and that water is supplied on an average for only three hours a day. Waste disposal and sewage treatment plants are missing in most Indian cities: 30% of the households have no toilets, the coverage of the sewage network is merely 12% while the treatment of sewage is even lower at 3%. Most of the untreated sewage is discharged into rivers, ponds or lakes, which are also the main source of potable water[4].

In the past, cities in emerging and now developed countries where extremely unhealthy places too, characterized by frequent outbreaks of epidemics that regularly killed large sections of the population. Yet, living conditions, including sanitation and availability of clean drinking water and medical care have improved. Growing prosperity and deliberate policies were accompanies by decreasing family size.  The air has become cleaner but air pollution continues to be a major problem. Still, large wealth related differences in health persist.

Asthma

Many chronic diseases in emerging and developed countries are associated with air quality. More than 26 million people in the U.S. have asthma, and therefore difficulties with breathing. African-American residents die three times more from asthma than whites. They often live in segregated communities with poor housing, near heavy industry, transportation centers and other sources of air pollution[5]. The concentration of particulate matter near main road arteries is irresponsibly high, especially on warm, windless days.


Amsterdam

In Amsterdam too, the level of pollution from particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exceeded the standards of the World Health Organization (WHO). As a consequence, the life of an average citizen is shortened with one year [6]. Moreover, 4.5% of the loss of healthy years is the result of exposure to polluted air too. To put this outcome in context: The percentage is less than the damage to public health caused by smoking (13.1%) and overweight (5.0%), but more than the damage caused by lack of movement (3.5%) and excess drinking (2.8%)[7].


Lifestyle-related health problems

At the same time, growing prosperity of city-dwellers comes with lifestyle related health problems, the abuse of alcohol and drugs included, like heart problems, cancer, obese and  stress.  Their solution requires major changes in the design of cities and the behaviour of citizens, and include the provision of parks and other green spaces, making cities more walkable, a general reduction of cars, the transition to electric vehicles, and changing food and moving habits.

As a consequence, improving health implies improving the availability and affordability of care and fighting poverty as well. Many diseases are directly related to living conditions, which in turn are related to wealth. A billion city dwellers worldwide live in slums, on sidewalks or below bridges. Nearly all of them lack drinking water and sanitation.

Therefore, a humane city will focus on providing adequate care and for all its citizens, accompanied by healthy living conditions, shelter, work and income. 


[1] https://www.savethechildren.org/content/dam/usa/reports/advocacy/sowm/sowm-2015.pdf

[2] https://data.unicef.org/resources/levels-trends-child-mortality-2017/

[3] http://ghdx.healthdata.org/gbd-2016

[4] http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/smart-cities-dont-make-me-laugh/article19897715.ece

[5] https://nextcity.org/features/view/why-racial-disparities-in-asthma-are-an-urban-planning-issue

[6] https://www.infomil.nl/onderwerpen/lucht-water/luchtkwaliteit/regelgeving/wet-milieubeheer/beoordelen/grenswaarden/

[7] https://www.parool.nl/nieuws/verwachte-verbetering-blijft-uit-lucht-in-de-stad-nog-net-zo-vies~bea8f836/

Looking for a humane city

Introducing a free new book

An ever-increasing part of the global population lives in cities. At one side the cities are engines of economic growth. At the other side, a large part of their population lives in poverty. At one side, technology is propagated as a mighty enabler and cities must be ‘smart’, at the other side it has replaced craftsmanship by dull jobs, as long as these are note wiped away too. These sides belong to one type of coins, which is the predominant disconnection between the interests behind economic growth and social and ecological values. 

I have tried to forge another coin, the humane city, were all citizens live decently and children have equal chances. The fifteen chapters of the book Future Cities, Always Humane. Smart if helpful.  provide a comprehensive picture of the development of humane cities. 

Anybody interested can download for free the English version here and the Dutch version here (both optimized for screen use). A Dutch version (optimized for printing) can be found here

During the next months, this blog enables you to reed posts representing the tragic of urban life but also the prospects of improvement, which ultimately will bring humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings in my book, updating and supplementing them.

This post is illustrated with two sketches that my father made in 1939 of children in Maastricht Stokstraat quarter, then a slum-like neighborhood, now gentrificated. 

When I was writing about the humane city, I always had in mind these and the hundreds of millions other children who still live on the brink of poverty. Only in the US – which is said to be ‘the greatest country in the world’ – we are talking about 40% of all children. Unfortunately, the fate of their children will not be much better.

Writing the book has depressed me and also made me angry at those who believe that technology can solve all problems. Instead, societal changes at all levels are necessary preconditions. Still, each chapter illustrates that well-chosen technologies that might support the de development of humane cities. 

The most important question is, what is the main challenge to become a humane city? The best answer is in Julian Agyeman’s definition of just sustainability: The need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and in the future, in a just and equitable way, while living within the boundaries of supporting ecosystems[1].

Unequal opportunities for the inhabitants of the earth are a recurring theme in most chapters. Many attempts have been made already to improve the fate of mankind. Some were successful, many failed. For instance, social housing projects were counterproductive because social housing has increased segregation and came without (better) work, liveable income and education. 

The only way towards a humane city is indeed the most difficult one: An approach that tackles all problems at once, considering their interrelatedness. Cities are the right place for such an approach, as the interdependence of their problems is obvious. Still, it will take many years, provided the preconditional societal reforms occur.


[1] Ducan McLaren & Julian Agyeman: Sharing Cities, A case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities.  MIT, 2015, p. 200