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May Result in a Devastating Global Disaster

Leading scientists are calling for a significant overhaul of global governance to address the environmental impact of rapid urban expansion. These experts, from the Universities of Bristol, Oxford, and Yale, propose the establishment of a new global advisory system, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to guide sustainable urban development and protect Earth’s ecosystems. This initiative aims to fill a critical gap in current policymaking and is supported by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) PEAK program.

Cities around the world are experiencing unprecedented growth, placing immense pressure on land, resources, and ecosystems. In a Science journal article, the researchers outline their bold proposals to tackle the alarming consequences of urban expansion. They argue that international collaboration is essential to manage the sustainable growth of cities and protect the fundamental Earth systems that sustain life.

According to a recent World Cities Report, more than half of the global population currently lives in cities, and this proportion is expected to rise to nearly two-thirds by 2050. Urban areas are responsible for approximately three-quarters of carbon dioxide emissions, as acknowledged by the IPCC. However, the expansion of cities lacks collective governance at a multilateral level. In addition to exacerbating climate change and air quality issues, cities are profoundly reshaping Earth’s main systems, including the hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and geosphere.

One of the significant consequences of urban growth is the loss of habitat and biodiversity. Professor Karen Seto, co-author of the article and an IPCC author, highlights that urban land expansion is a major driver of this loss, not only due to the occupation of land by cities but also because of the fragmentation of undeveloped land. This fragmentation disrupts wildlife and ecological areas, increasing the risks of fire, pests, and diseases. Waste disposal, emissions from industry and transport, and land development all contribute to the decline in biodiversity. Even seemingly green alternatives, such as energy-efficient technologies, can have unintended negative effects on organisms.

To address these challenges, the researchers emphasize the need for integrated urban policies that consider the design, construction, financing, and management of cities. Professor Michael Keith, Director of the Peak Urban Research Programme at Oxford University, asserts that tackling climate change requires a holistic approach to urbanization. Professor Tim Schwanen, co-author and Professor of Transport Geography at the University of Oxford, advocates for stronger policies that leverage cities’ potential for technological and social innovation while minimizing negative impacts.

Despite the far-reaching consequences of urban expansion, the issue is rarely discussed in global policymaking forums, and consultation with relevant scientists is inadequate. The authors propose the establishment of a new Urban Science advisory system that would work alongside the UN General Assembly to highlight relevant issues and provide policymakers with the latest information on the transformative impact of urban growth.

Dr. Jessica Espey, lead author of the article and a specialist in international governance of sustainable development, emphasizes the urgent need for representation of urban science in global governance structures. While the UN Secretary-General has recently created a scientific advisory panel, there is currently no representation for urban science. The authors argue that this must change to effectively address pressing global challenges.

The proposed Urban Science advisory system would ensure that policymakers have access to the most up-to-date information and insights on urban growth’s impact. The authors stress that this change needs to happen promptly to prevent further catastrophic consequences. They suggest that the new advisory system does not have to be as large or costly as the IPCC, and alternative models are possible.

In conclusion, leading scientists are calling for a new global advisory system to address the environmental impact of rapid urban expansion. They argue that international collaboration and integrated urban policies are crucial to manage the sustainable growth of cities and protect Earth’s ecosystems. By establishing an Urban Science advisory system, policymakers can make informed decisions to mitigate the negative consequences of urbanization and safeguard the future of cities and the planet.

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