The time for science and cities to work together is now

Debra Roberts at the 43rd Session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Nairobi. Credit: IISD/ENB, Kiara Worth
Sep 2016

In this Q&A, Debra Roberts discusses the growing role that science is playing in the devlopment of cities, helping them to grow less "gung ho" and more sustainably.

This article first appeared on the Habitat X Change blog as part of series undertaken in partnership with Future Earth. Habitat X Change is a collaborative space that connects science, visualization and design for the future of cities. It will debut during the Habitat III summit in October in Quito, Ecuador. You can read more about this event here.

You can also read an earlier story from this series here.

In this interview, Debra Roberts, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, talks about a new paradigm for cities and science that is emerging in the aftermath of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. Roberts has a unique background that combines scientific research and working as a city practitioner in Durban, South Africa.

Q: What’s the state of the cities-science dialogue today?

Debra Roberts: This dialogue is just getting started in a serious way. In the past, cities were not places where science was a driving force. In the next 20 to 50 years, all big developmental decisions will be made in cities. They are becoming the loci on the face of the earth where literally everything (social, natural, economic pressures and opportunities) merge. Science is being added into the programme as a necessary consideration and tool. We’re at the beginning of the debate. It’s been a much more passive actor in the past. Going forward cities are going to begin to define the development path around not only political and social criteria but around also scientific criteria.

Q: What, specifically, does science have to offer cities?

DR: Science is increasingly defining the playing field in which cities operate. That’s an important change. In the past we’ve developed our cities in a gung ho way driven by resource access and economic imperatives, there was almost a sense that cities were limitless. But obviously as cities increased in number, their needs increased. Looking ahead, we will see the addition of another 2.5 billion people to the world urban population by 2050. Science is going from being a peripheral player to being something quite central and will impact on structure, location, flows of energy and resource allocation in cities.

Q: So what needs for happen in order for science to take up this challenge of being a central player in city decision making processes?

DR: Science has been a peripheral player in the urban debate of the last 5,000 years -technology has traditionally provided the urban-science interface in cities. As a result, urban systems are not set up to deal with science directly. They are set up to deal with politics, policy and with practice. We don’t have a rule book or a toolkit for integrating science into the way we develop the urban narrative. So the big challenge is how to develop the multiple entry points required for science to engage in the required urban transformation. Finding the value chain for science from influencing decision making through to guiding implementation is critical. Those implementation pathways are absolutely critical for science to play a real role. But none of that groundwork has really been done so, in many ways we are entering a new era for cities. We’re entering a more scientifically oriented era for cities. It will require fresh thinking around skills, different institutional structures, different forms of governance, partnerships.

Q: The IPCC is in transition. Why is this happening and can you describe the change?

DR: I think the world is in transition, and the line in the sand for that transition was COP21 in Paris. The Paris Agreement lays out a new road map for action. Through the Paris Agreement we have a strong acknowledgement of the role of science as a GPS on this new journey we’re taking. Science is central to the way the Paris Agreement is going to be implemented and informed. We’re now seeing science and policy working hand in hand in determining how to handle the climate challenge in the 21st century. This is most clearly represented in the invitation from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce a special report looking at impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways.

Where do cities play a role in this new partnership between policy and science? We need the global scientific debate to be reflect more deeply on that the finer, more nuanced scale of cities. Cities are the real opportunity to bend the curve, whether it’s on ambitious adaptation or mitigation action, they are the location where the action materializes, where the decisions on resource flows are made. Because of that role, we’re seeing an increased focus on urban in the IPCC debate. The recent IPCC meeting in Nairobi saw a commitment to a stronger focus on cities: on mitigation and adaptation opportunities in AR6 [Sixth Assessment Report, to be published in 2022], a commitment to a special report on cities in AR7 [Seventh Assessment Report, release date to be determined], which raised the possibility of a scientific conference on cities and climate change to be held early in the AR6 cycle. These are giant steps being taken to draw cities into the climate change debate. There’s an increasing realization of the important role that they play.

Q: If I’m the mayor of a mega-city, what can the IPCC do for me?

DR: The IPCC works at the level of the nation state, it is a global level of assessment. That’s the first challenge. If your assessment is happening at the global level, and yet your ability to act is contextual and local, how do we begin to breach that divide? So in its current form the IPCC talks to mayors through derivative products, we saw that in AR5 [Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2014], and these products were produced by interested and relevant sectors. In this assessment cycle the IPCC has acknowledged the need to focus on urban issues more effectively in all of its products. It’s beginning to look to what the research agenda at the urban level might be, we are beginning to see an expansion of the assessment beyond the traditional IPCC assessment to something that may be more relevant locally. The envisaged conference on climate change and cities in AR6 will drawl in academia, urban practitioners, and relevant scientific bodies and agencies, so that those voices will be key to framing the problem statements that the researchers will target through their assessments.

It will be a process of policy, science and practice evolving together. Having new voices in the room is very exciting, the next challenge is how to make that meaningful, to ensure that those value systems are brought into the assessments process.

Debra Roberts is co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. She is head of the Sustainable and Resilient Cities Initiatives Unit of eThekwini Municipality in Durban, South Africa. In 2014, she was appointed Durban’s first Chief Resilience Officer. Her scientific background is in biology and ecology, and she has a PhD in urban biogeography. Previously she worked as a lecturer and researcher at the University of Natal and has written widely in the fields of urban open space planning, environmental management and urban climate protection. Roberts is also a member of the Engagement Committee of Future Earth, a research programme on global sustainability.