Cities are responsible for 75% of global emissions, which are a leading cause of climate change. But they can remain engines of economic growth and major population centers without such a heavy carbon footprint. Lena Chan, Senior Director of the National Parks Board of Singapore, discusses how cities in Asia and the Pacific can integrate biodiversity and nature-based solutions to become more livable and sustainable.


Nisha Pillai: Hello and welcome to ADB Insight. I’m Nisha Pillai.

The Asia and Pacific region is home to some of the biggest cities in the world and they’re only going to get bigger.

Urban areas, as we know, have been major drivers of economic growth, but they’ve also been major drivers of the region’s growing carbon footprint.

Cities face a challenge to maintain their role as population centers and of economic activity, while reducing their impact on climate change.

How they can solve those issues and better manage their natural environments is now a key development issue.

For more, I’m now joined by Lena Chan, Senior Director of the National Parks Board of Singapore and Co-Chair of the Global Commission on BiodiverCities by 2030.

Lena, welcome to ADB Insight.

Lena Chan: Hi, Nisha!

Nisha Pillai: Now, let’s start at the beginning. How responsible are cities for the climate situation that we currently face?

Lena Chan: There are currently more than half of the world's population living in cities and cities are the key contributors to climate change due to their impact on the environment. Although urban areas occupy 1% of the Earth's ice-free land built-up areas, we find that estimates have shown that cities are responsible for 75% of global CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, with transport and buildings being the largest contributors.

Nisha Pillai: Three quarters of global emissions, now that’s a really astonishing number. So, if cities are part of the problem, I guess they’re also part of the solution? So, how can cities play an effective role at tackling climate change?

Lena Chan: Many cities like Durban, Shanghai, London, Bogota, Singapore, et cetera, they are all taking action. And they would achieve more effectively if they do it together. They can learn from each other and that’s very important. Cities must strengthen ecological, climate, and social resilience. It is a matter of utmost urgency for the survival of humanity. We are embedded in nature. Cities are on an appropriate level to actually initiate positive nature and climate actions due to their administrative agility, compared to that at national level.

Globally, cities can start by aiming to be biodiverse cities that restore balance between cities and nature, if they haven't done so. There are five steps that they could follow. First of all, increase nature in the infrastructure and built environment by having rooftop gardens, vertical greenery, roadside planting because roadsides occupy, it's a major infrastructure, landscaping.

Improve urban governance models to support nature-based solutions for city challenges by mainstreaming biodiversity into all the development processes and projects. Thirdly, forge positive links between urban and rural settings and treat them as a continuum rather than as separate entities.

Fourthly, prioritize bio-circular economy to reduce wastage. And finally, nurture nature-positive values in citizens for health and wellbeing so that everyone can equitably contribute and benefit from them.

Nisha Pillai: So, lots of potential solutions there, Lena. But, I’d like to ask you specifically about our region. What can cities do? What can governments do to make cities more eco-friendly, more climate-friendly?

Lena Chan: Yeah, cities in Asia have the highest population and cities in the Pacific are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. In the past years, we see an awakening in business and financial sectors that they now acknowledge they can't stay in the sidelines. They must play a greater role in ameliorating, mitigating, and avoiding further adverse effects on biodiversity and climate change. So very important finance resources contribution by the financial and business sectors, not just the government.

Now, in terms of knowledge and expertise, we have to then garner knowledge from everywhere. And the other important thing is that citizen science is extremely important. And there's so much technology these days that we can use, everybody should contribute. Apple, Google, these should actually come in and help.

Nisha Pillai: So, clearly a role there for tech companies and technologies more generally. But does the political will exist?

Lena Chan: I think political will is also extremely crucial. Now, politicians will only have the will if they can see for themselves the problem. So, instead of standing by the sidelines, they should actually go to the field and see things as they are.

Nisha Pillai: So, you mentioned earlier nature-based solutions. Can you explain how you see cities pursuing those in the battle against climate change?

Lena Chan: Nature-based solutions are great solutions simply because we are taking lessons, learning from nature. For example, mangroves can protect the shores, protect coastal erosion, and they are better because they are more flexible. And as mangroves, they also accrete and they grow while you have a very concrete structure, a seawall, it deflects erosion to somewhere else.

What’s more Nisha, there are lots of roads in cities. Now, how can you best use nature-based solutions here? You learn from the forests. The tropical rainforests, they are multilayered stories. Similarly, all trees should be (planted) at the same time so they are all the same height. What you do is, you just plant many layers of different kinds of trees. So, you have different species that will then form habitats for birds and butterflies. So, your roadside then not only provides shade but also provides habitats for birds and animals. They also reduce the impact of heavy rainfall on your soil and also ameliorate or tone down wind speeds. So, then it protects the trees in return.

Nisha Pillai: So finally, Lena, can you tell us what you think are the most important priorities, the most immediate priorities for policymakers to pursue right now to make our cities more biodiverse and more eco-friendly?

Lena Chan: So first, conserve as much of natural ecosystems that you can find in the city. And these are natural ecosystems that may be found in national parks, nature reserves, natural areas. Now, these will form the important native gene pool in a city. And the greater the biodiversity, the more ecologically resilient the city will be.

Second, ecologically connect the natural areas and green spaces. Now, linking these naturally vegetated areas will increase effective areas for biodiversity. What’s more, Nisha, apply science and technology to help with the implementation and operationalization. Some of the state-of-the-art (systems), like using e-DNA, Asian-based modeling, drones—those are very important.

Fourthly, totally and comprehensively involve everyone, because each and every one of us is a stakeholder and therefore, we must play our part.

And lastly, we must evaluate and monitor the conservation measures used by tools like the Singapore index on cities’ biodiversity. Because if we don't evaluate and monitor, we won't know whether the methods that we are using are successful or not. And therefore, it is important for us to measure objectively and quantitatively whether are we heading in the right direction and if it's not, then we should actually seek other ways and means.

Nisha Pillai: What an interesting interview, Lena. Thank you so much for joining us on ADB Insight.

Lena Chan: Nisha, thank you very much for inviting me.

Nisha Pillai: Indeed, thank you to all of you for joining us for this episode of ADB Insight on BiodiverCities. Till the next time, goodbye.