BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A major summit on cities taking place in Ecuador this week must consider setting targets to measure progress on an ambitious 20-year plan for urban development, the United Nations' environment chief said on Monday.
In Quito, some 140 governments are expected to sign up to a non-binding vision for sustainable cities that includes multiple pledges, but analysts have criticized it for lacking specific goals or timelines.
More than 45,000 government leaders, academics, planners and campaigners have gathered for the U.N. Habitat III conference which is tasked with working out how the "New Urban Agenda" will be put into practice over the next two decades.
Erik Solheim, who took the reins as executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) in August, said targets would be needed so that cities could see whether their efforts were successful, and learn from one another.
"We need definitely to move towards targets, otherwise it will be very difficult," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on his way to Ecuador. "You need to compare, and (for that) you need targets."
UNEP plans to push for objectives and targets on improving air and water quality in cities, reducing waste, boosting renewable energy and expanding green spaces - but Quito may not yield firm decisions, experts say.
Solheim said indicators being developed to measure the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals agreed last year - which include cities - could be used, as well as new ones set by a range of organizations.
He urged city officials attending the Quito conference to look for innovative ideas that could be applied back home.
The world's fast-growing cities from Dhaka to Lagos face the same challenges - from managing waste to easing congestion and air pollution, he noted.
"There are any number of solutions to all these problems ... and since the problems are so similar, it would be an enormous waste if we don't do more to compare notes," the former Norwegian development and environment minister said.
Solheim, who was in Rwanda at the weekend to help secure a global deal to cut greenhouse gases, cited the example of Kigali's waste management system, which he said was the best in Africa thanks to a combination of personal and municipal action, spurred by top-level political leadership.
He also recently visited Mumbai in India, where he said residents have joined weekly clean-ups to help rid the city's beaches of plastic waste.
"When citizens are involved like that, it also puts pressure on business to act, and on city governments to start curbing the problem," he said.
The private sector has substantial technology and financial resources that can be deployed to recycle waste or build greener transport systems, among other things. But collaboration has been inadequate, Solheim said.
"They must be a partner in the thinking from day one," he said.
When it comes to dealing with climate change, the best way to reduce planet-warming emissions from cities - which account for more than 70 percent of the global total - is by addressing concerns over public health, Solheim said.
"The more cities focus on local pollution, the more likely they are to succeed (in tackling climate change)... It is the strongest driver for change," he said, noting this has been the case in China.
A study issued on Monday by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said annual deaths in Africa from outdoor air pollution - mostly caused by road transport, power generation and industry - rose by 36 percent to around 250,000 between 1990 and 2013.
The death toll rose in tandem with the continent's steady and rapid urbanization, "a megatrend set to continue to unfold throughout this century and which makes bold action to tackle and reverse the impact of air pollution even more urgent", the OECD said.
Solheim said the key to cleaner, safer cities lay with good urban planning - including allowing for green spaces, providing public transport, and preventing urban sprawl.
"If you allow cities to grow unplanned in all directions, there is no limit to your problems," he said.
(This story corrects to removes reference in 2nd paragraph to number of pledges.)
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)