With more than half the world’s population living in cities, it is widely understood that the development path that cities take will have profound implications for whether the countries will be able to achieve the SDGs.
Subnational reporting offers a way for many cities to track their own progress; at the same time it can also be used by national governments to better understand city needs, improve resource allocations, and incentivise new approaches and solutions.
This week, many policymakers will gather in New York to conduct voluntary national reviews (VNR) of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the specific aim of assessing progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Among the SDGs featured in the VNR process is SDG 11, with its explicit focus on cities and several other targets related to sustainable urban development under SDG 6, 7, 12, and 17. With more than half the world’s population living in cities, it is widely understood that the development path that cities take will have profound implications for whether the countries will be able to achieve the SDGs. By the same token, much evidence suggests that SDG 11 and other goals and targets related to cities are fundamental towards ensuring that fast-growing urban populations enjoy healthier environments, better jobs, and happier lives. This commentary reflects on some recent research to highlight both the challenges and opportunities to realising a more sustainable future for cities in Asia.
As in much of the world, Asian cities are facing significant issues with advancing sustainable urban development. On the one hand, rapid industrialisation has increased the access of millions to vital services such as electricity and sanitation. At the same time, however, growing demands for energy, water, and housing could lock-in unsustainable development patterns for decades to come. For instance, changing lifestyles, particularly in expanding cities across the region, are driving estimates that Asian cities alone will generate 1.8 billion tonnes of waste in year 2025, compared to 0.28 billion tonnes in 2012. Other concerns can be found in data that suggests that, although the number of people in the Asia-Pacific with access to electricity has grown over the past 30 years, the total share of renewable energy in total energy consumption has fallen. Given that Asia-Pacific is the world’s largest consumer of natural resources and energy, how can cities chart a development path that safeguards the environment for current and future generations?
Most if not all of the answers to this question lies in cities. Framed differently, the above challenges also present important opportunities for sustainable development in line with the SDGs. Indeed, there are a number of cities across the region that have managed to meet growing needs for energy and consumption by pursuing pollution-free growth; innovative solutions to these problems can be shared and spread. The SDGs, with their focus on a set of relatively ambitious and transformational goals, stand to help raise the profile of existing solutions and motivate other cities to adopt their own innovative approaches. In fact, many of our colleagues at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies Bangkok Office have worked closely with an expanding group of front-runner environmental sustainable cities in Southeast Asia to showcase these innovative approaches (https://pub.iges.or.jp/pub/early-views-asean’s-‘frontrunner-cities’).
Despite the commendable efforts in Southeast Asia, achieving widespread sustainable urban development will not be easy. One significant obstacle is identifying and applying the right data to track progress. For example, although many of the targets for SDG 11 push the boundaries of traditional development models, some cities frequently struggle with gathering information. Even when such information is available, many local authorities face issues with selecting and using the data to inform decision-making. A soon-to-be published issue brief from our institute suggests that data gaps for the environmentally-related targets for SDGs 11 may pose some problems in the Philippines and Japan (particularly for time series data). At the same time, there are signs that these constraints can be overcome. In Japan, for instance, the city of Shimokawa Town (Hokkaido) has embraced the SDGs and worked closely with researchers to develop a set of proxy indicators from tax records, reflecting a strong local interest in socioeconomic equity. This experience raises the prospect that not only can such data gaps be overcome, but that the SDGs can serve as a roadmap for further improvements.
Drawing on the SDGs to help generate this forward motion is already on display in Japan. Three cities—Shimokawa, Toyama and Kitakyushu—are featured in a recent IGES report that borrows the structure of the VNRs but are tailored to the needs of subnational governments. This report can be thought of as a “Voluntary Local Review.” This kind of subnational reporting offers a way for many cities to track their own progress; at the same time it can also be used by national governments to better understand city needs, improve resource allocations, and incentivise new approaches and solutions. We look forward to sharing these lessons at a series of IGES side events at HLPF 2018 through our newly launched SDG website, and beyond the important discussions in New York during HLPF, including at the International Forum for a Sustainable Asia and the Pacific scheduled to coincide with the HLPF.
 UN Environment, AIT, ISWA, “Asia Waste Management Outlook”, 2017.