Urban 20: City Diplomacy at the G20

By Vincent H Pala

“As India gears up to assume the presidency of the G20 summit, we must now look forward to setting the agenda and the direction for the upcoming summit.The agenda must be about leading cities in a direction of sustainable, fair, just, and inclusive development.”

The G20 is one of the world’s key forums for global diplomacy. Apart from its summit with heads of state and heads of government, it comprises ten engagement groups – such as the Civil 20, Women 20, Youth 20, and Urban 20 among others. Of these, the Urban 20 (U20) is remarkably positioned as it is the only one that comprises elected officials and gives the U20 unique political legitimacy. The U20 revolves around a Mayors’ Summit, which brings together mayors and governors of the major cities of the G20 countries. It results in the creation of a communiqué – an action-oriented document that is collectively prepared and endorsed by U20 participating cities.
A large proportion of the world’s population (about 68%) is expected to live in urban areas by 2050 (UN projections). Cities command a significant portion of their countries’ respective Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In India, cities are expected to contribute 75% of the national GDP by 2030. There is a growing recognition of the importance of the urban sector for achieving national aspirations of economic prosperity and for improving the quality of life for a substantial proportion of the population. Importantly, the push towards ‘net zero’ development must also be driven by cities as over 75% of the growth in GHG emissions will take place in urban areas. Cities will be at the forefront of driving climate change adaptation and resilience. As per UN-Habitat, the cost of not building multi-hazard resilient cities will be around $300 billion every year by 2030. The collective political potential that they wield, and the central role they often play in driving growth & innovation in their home countries, provide a strong rationale for including them in the G20 conversation. There is a need to collectively deliberate and foster innovative urban development approaches globally and improve urban planning, management, and governance to ensure that future cities are inclusive, sustainable, and resilient.
The first U20 summit was launched in 2018 in Buenos Aires at the invitation of Mayor Horacio Larreta. More recently, this year at the U20 in Indonesia 2022, twenty-eight City Leaders endorsed the communiqué. An additional sixteen City Leaders joined as observers at the summit. For the first time, India was a participant as an endorser to the communiqué and was represented by the Commissioner of the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation. Previously, we participated as an observer at the Rome-Milan U20. As India gears up to assume the presidency of the G20 summit, we must now look forward to setting the agenda and the direction for the upcoming summit.
The agenda must be about leading cities in a direction of sustainable, fair, just, and inclusive development. India must keep its eyes on past visions of the U20 and add to them. We must also lead by contributing our creative indigenous solutions to the issues at hand. As the world emerges from the ravages of the pandemic, health and related infrastructure continue to be in focus. We must upgrade to more resilient and transparent health systems to guard against future pandemics, natural disasters, and other crises. At the same time, mental health must receive increasing public investments, particularly for the most vulnerable sections of society. The pandemic period has also witnessed social upheaval from tenants being unable to pay rent due to increased joblessness. There is an urgent call for increased attention toward affordable & accessible housing by recognizing the right to housing.
For cleaner and greener cities, there must be an eventual transition to sustainable energy. India can particularly play a critical role in foregrounding this issue and steering action toward clean energy. Our initiative to lead in the International Solar Alliance allows us to pitch solar energy as an effective alternative to fossil fuel use, particularly in the tropical regions of the world. This, combined with other forms of sustainable energy also aligns with the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. Transitioning to sustainable energy sources will not only help the cities themselves but also the environment at large. Similarly, achieving water and food security will substantially aid our efforts toward creating sustainable cities and communities.
As India’s service sector and knowledge economy continue to grow, it provides us an opportunity to collaborate with cities around the globe in developing and implementing education, training, skill-building, apprenticeship systems, and employment programs that are inclusive and accessible to all. This expansion of education and skill-building must include workers’ welfare, upholding work-life balance, job security, and fair wages. In particular, low-skilled and gig workers must receive liveable wages. Increasing digitalization, the introduction of 5G, and rapidly growing mobile use allow India to promote its cities as destinations for opportunities & global exchange, as well as emerge as a leading innovation space for data-centric governance models. In addition to this, it is important to meet the cross–cutting challenge of cities’ access to finance. It is now well-established that future infrastructure development has to be environmentally sensitive and resilient. Therefore, building conducive policy environments for instruments such as climate finance, must remain a key agenda in U20. It is imperative to foster collective efforts of the city representatives under U20 and the G20 Finance Track to accelerate financial inclusion to promote economic well-being, prosperity, and sustainable development.
The upcoming U20 allows India an unparalleled opportunity to promote just, inclusive, and sustainable cities under its G20 presidency. The U20 comes out as a promising platform to deliberate on key urban issues. In order to ensure that the outcomes of the U20 deliberations have wide-ranging impacts on urban development, it will be important to include the voices of non-G20 countries and cities to leverage the collective leadership of cities in implementing global agendas prioritized by the G20. Cities will continue to be centres of innovation, creativity, and opportunity that India must foster & encourage further.
(Vincent H Pala is Lok Sabha MP from Shillong, Meghalaya, and Standing Committee Member on Industries. Pankhuri Jain (LAMP Fellow) provided inputs for the article).