05 Jun 2015 Speech Cities and lifestyles

2015 International student conference on environment and sustainability

Shanghai, 5 June 2015 Prof Yang Xianjin, Chairman of the Tongji University Council Prof Wang Guangtao, Chair of UNEP Tongji Institute of Environment for Sustainable Development Board Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I am grateful for this opportunity to address you at the summit of the 5th International Student Conference on Environment and Sustainability at the Tongji University in Shanghai.

I am delighted to be able to meet with you in Shanghai - a city symbolic of the progress China has made towards shifting to a green economy and making its remarkable economic progress sustainable.

With its world-class rapid transit network, including new, energy-efficient vehicles such as the super capacitor buses and electric, hydrogen fuel-cell and hybrid buses, Shanghai can serve as a model of innovation for other cities, worldwide.

Equally, Tongji University should be an example for other higher education institutions, with its state of-the-art Campus Energy Management System, the retrofitted, energy-efficient buildings and the wastewater reuse and heat recovery systems forming part of the sustainable campus initiative.

As we have just heard from the UN Secretary-General, today we celebrate the World Environment Day (WED). It is a time, when people come together in more than 100 countries to cherish our planet and to take concrete action to protect it.

This year, we celebrate WED with the theme "Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care." We invite everyone, particularly young people, to rethink their lifestyles and the impact they are having on the planet and its natural resources.

The 7 billion humans inhabiting the Earth today are collectively exploiting the planet's resources at accelerating rates and intensities that surpass the capacity of its systems to absorb wastes and neutralize the adverse effects on the environment. In fact, the depletion or degradation of several key resources has already constrained conventional development in some parts of the world.

This year's WED highlights the areas, where each one of us, making conscious decisions as a consumer, can decrease the humanity's collective impact on nature's resources. These areas are: food, energy and water.

The issue of food loss and waste is probably the most striking example of our dysfunctional production and consumption patterns. Worldwide, about one third of all food produced, worth around USD 1 trillion, is lost or wasted. In industrialized regions, almost half of the total food wasted, around 300 million tonnes annually, occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still fit for consumption.

Energy is another resource used wastefully, with grave consequences for the environment. Despite technological advances that have promoted energy efficiency gains, energy use in OECD countries will continue to grow another 35 per cent by 2020. Commercial and residential energy use is the second most rapidly growing area of global energy use after transport.

Our careless use of resources extends even to the ones fundamental to our survival, such as water. The world is entering a period of growing water scarcity: by 2030, global demand for fresh water could outstrip supply by more than 40 per cent if no changes are made in the way we use this precious element. Even though households are relatively low consumers of water (8 per cent) in comparison to industrial use (22 per cent) and agricultural use (70 per cent), population growth and expanded water use outweigh the effect of water saving technology and behaviour.

Science offers sombre predictions of what lies ahead if we continue down that road. In 2050, when most of you are only in your 50-s, the global population will reach 9.6 billion. In 2030s, when you celebrate your 40-something birthday, the consumption of natural resources will rise to 200 per cent of the planet's bio-capacity, meaning we will be consuming a resources at twice the speed the Earth reproduces them. Already within the next 20 years, water scarcity will reach a level, where only 60 per cent of the world's demand is satisfied.

If current consumption and production patterns do not change, by 2050 we will need three planets to sustain our ways of living.

But we only have ONE Earth! And many of its ecosystems are already nearing critical tipping points of depletion or irreversible change. The well-being of humanity, its economic development and healthy environment ultimately depend upon our ability to decouple the economic growth and social advancement from the increasing use of natural resources.

That change can start with each one of us, with the lifestyles we lead and with the decisions we make as consumers. Sustainable lifestyles mean 'doing more and better with less.' 'More' goods and services with 'less' impact in terms of resource use, environmental degradation, waste and pollution.

I would like to invite you to imagine what the world would be like if each of the 7 billion people made one change towards a more responsible use of resources. I would like you to hold on to that vision and strive to make it reality, starting with a single change you, yourselves can make, be it ordering less food at a restaurant, or refusing to buy single-use plastic bags, or riding a bike to school.

You should bear in mind that, as future intellectual elites and policymakers of your countries, you have a special responsibility towards the environment. It is you - the students and young people - who are the future custodians of our planet and it is your dreams that will shape its destiny.

Your youthful enthusiasm and fresh perspective are invaluable assets that allow you to find solutions, where others have given up. Such was the case of the young visionary, Boyan Slat, UNEP's 2014 Champion of the Earth. While still in high school, he designed an innovative solution for cleaning our oceans of litter. He was not discouraged even when his project was ruled impossible by experts. Where they saw barriers, he saw opportunities, and found new solutions to the mounting challenges.

At UNEP we recognize the immense potential of the fresh ideas of young people and cherish the collaboration with universities, where these ideas are exchanged, nurtured and crystalized.

Through its Environmental Education and Training (EET) initiative, UNEP works towards incorporating environment and development dimensions into the educational processes of all countries and creating new environmentally-friendly behaviour patterns, encouraging sustainable lifestyles and fostering ethical responsibilities.

UNEP's partnership with Tongji University is a very important part of this outreach effort. Through our joint Institute of Environment for Sustainable Development (IESD), established back in 2002, we work to mainstream the environment and sustainable development into higher education.

The Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability (GUPES), currently chaired by Tongji and boasting over 520 participating Universities, provides a strategic platform towards that goal and facilitates inter-university networking on sustainability issues with emphasis on South-South and North-South partnerships.

The annual International Student Conference on Environment and Sustainability launched by Tongji and UNEP in 2011 gives a voice to the international students themselves, providing them with a platform to work together, exchange ideas on critical environmental issues and create new solutions. I am very pleased to note the growing number of partners supporting this important annual event, and taking our partnership with Tongji University to a higher level.

The theme of this year's International Student Conference on Environment and Sustainability is City and Nature.

It is only fitting, that it be convened in one of the most amazing cities in the world, Shanghai. The largest city in China by population, the Pearl of the Orient is amongst the most prominent mega cities of the world. Its impressive growth and innovative approach to urban environmental management was showcased during the 2010 World Expo, under the theme "Better City, Better Life".

Extrapolating that success into the future and securing an equally high quality of living for the coming generations of Shanghainese will depend on the ability of its policymakers to address the challenges that the growing population and urbanization bring.

Today, more than half of the world's population lives in cities, and that proportion is projected to grow to 70 per cent by 2050.

By 2050, city dwellers will be responsible for what I would call the striking "5 by 75". They will:

  • represent more than 75 per cent of the global GDP; 

  • consume 75 per cent of global energy; 

  • consume 75 per cent of extracted natural resources;

  • be responsible for approximately 75 per cent of global CO2 emissions; 

  • be responsible for 75 per cent of global waste generation.


These figures leave no room for doubt that the large ecological footprint of cities is poised to grow even further. The decisive battle for achieving worldwide sustainable consumption and production will therefore play out in the urban environment rather than the open fields. The continuing global economic development will depend on decoupling the cities' growth from escalating resource use.

Three quarters of the energy currently produced is consumed in cities. Industries are largely located in the vicinity, and in some cases, in the centres of cities. The number of cities with more than a million inhabitants reached 378 in 2000 (up from 11 in 1990). By 2025, only 10 years from now, 600 cities will have surpassed the million people mark. This growth is largely taking place in the developing world. The demand for energy will grow exponentially as rural people with little or no access to energy migrate to urban areas.

The challenge of providing enough energy for the cities to accommodate the newcomers cab be turned into an opportunity for a more sustainable design and growth of urban centres:

First of all, by promoting energy efficiency. District energy plans have become popular in both cold and high ambient temperatures. Smart grid technologies have proved themselves for their efficiency. The use of energy saving appliances and lightings, as well as improved building efficiency, would complete the battery of measures.

Secondly, renewable energy technologies have finally imposed themselves as technically and financially viable options. UNEP and its partners (Bloomberg and Frankfurt School) published the 2015 report on Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investments.

Strikingly, the year 2014 saw more than 100 GW of renewable energy installations. Never before has this much energy capacity been added to the world from renewable sources, hydro excluded.

More than US $270 billion was invested last year in sustainable energy technologies, up 17 per cent from the previous year. This, against the backdrop of the financial crisis and the more than 50 per cent collapse of oil prices in the second half of the year.

Intelligently designed cities offer an opportunity to reduce our environmental impact. If managed sustainably, they can become the centres of resource efficiency - people living in greater concentration means shorter travels, more efficient transportation and infrastructure, better land use and fewer emissions.

I am aware that cities are at the heart of the activities of Tongji University, which boasts one of the best schools in China for architecture and urban planning, as well as for environmental studies. With extraordinary city planners, urban architects, environment engineers and many other professionals, Tongji has made significant contributions to the "Chinese Miracle". There are many lessons we can learn from their experience and expertise.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We live in a world of paradoxes and inequalities. Close to a billion people still go hungry. At the same time, another billion suffer from obesity (including in developing countries). Larger quantities of food do not mean greater happiness and wealth. Most of the times, they involve more waste and unhealthy lives.

Changing the way we live does not mean giving up on happiness, wealth or health. On the contrary, it changes the way we define and measure quality of life. Adopting a sustainable lifestyle entails accountability and responsibility. It ensures that when we leave this place to our children and their children, they too, can prosper.

In conclusion, let me wish you a fruitful conference and an inspiring World Environment Day. I hope you leave Shanghai with a baggage of fresh ideas and solutions to the excessive consumption of resources, at the level of your universities, cities, or even countries.

I also hope you use this forum to forge new friendships and partnerships that will allow you to cooperate across borders, continents and cultures towards achieving a world, in which we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Thank you for your kind attention!