African cities can avoid lock-in to fossil fuels

As Africa continues to urbanize at an unprecedented rate there is a great need to build cities that are resilient and can withstand the pressures of the future. The idea that low-carbon development is key to sustainable urban futures is nothing new. But the challenges of informality and poverty also need to be factored in to the path to building resilient cities and achieving the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Informality is a reality that we cannot romanticise or ignore,” says Anton Cartwright, a green economist and researcher at the African Centre for Cities, a research unit at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, that focuses on urbanisation in Africa.

Given the relative lack of infrastructure and services in many African cities, an opportunity is created “to avoid lock-in to fossil fuels” and instead “to create from scratch the infrastructure and institutional capacity to respond effectively and systematically to climate-change risks,” writes Cartwright in his 2015 report “Better Growth, Better Cities: Rethinking and Redirecting Urbanisation in Africa.”

Africa is in a unique position to create an urban transition that need not increase greenhouse gas emissions or intensify climate risks, but that can still target poverty alleviation through sustainable development.

To explain this mode of urban transition, Cartwright alludes to the children’s game of ‘leap-frog,’ where players jump over each other. He explains that African cities can draw on service delivery technologies and infrastructure to “leap-frog” onto new urban-development pathways, characterized by low-carbon development, basic service delivery, poverty alleviation, and paved with pioneering competitiveness in the emerging green economy, despite financial and governance constraints.

Cartwright argues that a prime place to start this “leap-frogging” is public transport. Efficient and affordable public transport will help urban commuters in African cities to “leap-frog the hyper-motorisation phase of socio-economic development” experienced by cities in the Global North.

Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria, stands out as a forerunner in this endeavor, having implemented a comparatively successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) programme, managed by the local transport authority, he notes. And several African cities are seeking to imitate the successful BRT systems piloted in Curitiba, in Brazil, and Bogota, Colombia’s capital city, which would bridge multiple SDG’s

This type of development makes economic sense too. For African cities, building low-carbon, resilient cities is more financially viable than attempting to build “green” cities, retrospectively, as is happening in the Global North, Cartwright explained.

For African cities’ development potential or ‘leap-frogging’ ability to be unlocked in the urban transition, instituitonal hybrids need to exist. This means that varying and city-specific combinations of national government, local authorities and community- based entrepreneurs will need to be forged and strengthened– a key challenge for the continent’s development community, and of course, reaching the SDGs. Ultimately, this all ties into SDG 17: “Partnerships for the Goals”—a goal absolutely crucial to the realization of every other SDG.

“Combining the best of grassroots livelihood approaches with city-scale initiatives and transformative national projects represents the most viable means of obviating the prevailing institutional impediments to Africa’s urban development,” writes Cartwright in his report. As he puts it: “The ability to support the emergence of hybrids that neither undermine governance, nor crowd-out local initiative and private sector investment, represents an important shift that international agencies need to support.”


Emma Broadway is an editorial intern with, a platform dedicated to communicating about African cities, based at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

This article was published at El Pais’ Planeta Futoro blog.

Photo: Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: South African Tourism (flickr).

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