How can the cities of the Global South grow green?

Nigeria’s economic powerhouse Lagos has doubled its population over the last two decades to 24 million. It could reach between 85 and 100 million inhabitants by 2100. As the cities of the Global South expand, can they grow green?

The momentum of megacities

Since 1975, the number of megacities with over ten million inhabitants has tripled in the Global South. It outnumbers those in the developed world by four to one. In the same period, the number of cities with one million people has doubled.

Urban expansion has been most pronounced in Asia and Africa, and it is likely to remain like this in the coming decades. The urban population is forecast to more than double in Africa and grow by half in Asia by 2050.

The megacities catch the headlines, but most of the rapid and often unplanned urbanisation will take place in mid-sized cities. A mid-sized city like Gwagwalada, less than 60 kilometres west of Nigeria’s capital Abuja, has increased its population sixfold in the past two decades only. Urban expansion of existing cities is only one side of the coin. Most cities needed to accommodate the new urban dwellers in Africa have yet to be built.

Silent killers

Managing this urbanisation matters. Around half of the populations in African and Asian cities live in informal settlements with limited access to critical infrastructure, no waste collection and extremely poor housing conditions. The World Bank coined air pollution a “silent killer” in Lagos, with 11,200 premature deaths in 2018 and children under five years most affected. Road transport, industrial emissions and generators are the main sources, next to open waste burning due to lacking waste management infrastructure, a practice which leads to particularly toxic emissions.

Growing green

Too often these cities are primed to produce waste. We need to break that mould and shift towards circular approaches. This means ensuring solid waste avoidance and management as well as repairing, sharing and recycling. This process is beneficial to the environment and one that generates decent jobs, also for unskilled workers.

The ILO estimates that in a truly circular economy scenario, 45 million jobs could be created by 2030 in waste management. Adding the possible job gains from renewable energies and sustainable construction, the potential becomes huge.

Demand for acquiring green skills is particularly strong in the younger generation. A 2021 survey suggests that a vast majority of young workers in the Asia-Pacific region would like to work in the green economy.

Number of green jobs (millions) created in urban sectors by 2030

based on the low-carbon scenario, compared to the business-As-Usual (BaU) scenario
Source: C. Cheong, M. Fink, S. Grafakos, A. Kleibrink, A. Pegels, W. Scholz, Key Actions for a Just Transition Through Green Jobs in Cities, Global Green Growth Institute Insight Brief 6.

Planting the seeds

To plant the seeds for circular economy to grow, cities must overcome three critical gaps. First, they must build the skills in city administrations to embed green tasks into planning and operational activities. They should be guided by dedicated planning offices and project preparation facilities like the City Climate Finance Gap Fund and the C40 Cities Finance Facility.

Donors and multilateral development banks could kickstart the financing of such offices. They should make use of tools like City WORKS or tailor-made ones like Circle City Scan Tool and boost their engagement with public utility companies, which in many developing countries can absorb a variety of financial instruments that city governments alone often cannot. The Lagos State government announced a far-reaching plan to overhaul the entire waste management system and public utility to generate 6,000 green jobs and deal with the problems of air pollution and littering.

Second, they must close the investment gap. The Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance estimates that the annual investment gap for sustainable urban infrastructure amounts to up to five trillion USD. To close this gap, cities must embed circular components into large infrastructure projects that are already ready for financing. The Indian government has made it mandatory to use waste plastics for road construction around large cities.

While the possible consequences of spreading micro-plastics should be studied carefully, local governments can build a new income stream from selling waste plastics through this circular approach. They can also boost their engagement with the private sector and with global initiatives, for instance through the new G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.

Third, cities must boost innovation. To do so, they can scale-up successful multi-stakeholder partnerships like the PREVENT Waste Alliance and create more university partnerships like the Circular Campus Programme for training, research and diffusion of green technologies. These should be coupled with complementary activities to support vocational education and training, and venture capital programmes to back the ecological innovation potential of start-ups. One example is Singapore-based Circulate Capital. This private equity fund focusses on waste management and circular solutions with a focus on Southeast Asia.

Building a circular future

What could an ideal model “circular city” based on green jobs look like? Rwanda’s capital Kigali is planning a model zero-carbon neighbourhood called Green City Kigali with more than 30,000 housing units. This project embodies what Rwandan Minister of Environment Jeanne D’Arc Mujawamariya said about the ultimate goal of a circular economy, “it’s a win-win for the people and the planet, as it has the potential to create thousands of green jobs and improve the health and well-being of communities”. This must be the shared goal of the cities of the Global South.

Model of the new “Green City Kigali” in Rwanda

For more on the role of cities and regions in green growth and the circular economy, check out Job creation and Local Economic Development: Bridging the Great Green Divide and how social enterprises can help.

Senior Researcher at IDOS | + posts

Dr Anna Pegels is Senior Researcher at IDOS, the German Institute of Development and Sustainability. She received her doctorate in economics in 2007 and has since then focused on the interconnections between development and the green transformation. At IDOS, Anna has led several research projects, and extensively authored and edited publications on the questions of adequate policy instruments for green latecomer development and sustainable behaviours. Her current research concentrates on the transition to a circular economy in developing and emerging countries, in particular on measures to promote sustainable waste management behaviours by households and consumers.

Senior policy professional | + posts

Dr Alexander Kleibrink is a senior policy professional working on place-based development, accountability and innovation policies. He has been serving as Deputy Head of Unit for sustainable urban development at the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, was a member of the ministry’s Ukraine Task Force and Team Leader at the European Commission for place-based innovation policies in transition economies.  Alexander is the author of numerous handbooks, articles and books, including the co-edited book Quantitative Methods for Place-Based Innovation Policy and “Open data outcomes: U.S. cities between product and process innovation”. He holds a doctorate in political science.