Sustainability expert: This is where the climate battle will be fought

Created: February 21, 2019. Updated: February 21, 2019.

Professor Xuemei Bai, the winner of the Volvo Environment Prize, explains her take on the race against climate change. “We have this really narrow window of opportunity to get things right,” she says.

The global community is currently racing against time itself in the fight against climate change, and professor Xuemei Bai is one of the people leading the pack. In November 2018, she was awarded the Volvo Environment Prize (VEP), for her research on urban sustainability at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. According to Bai, there is a saying that sustainability will be won or lost in the cities.

“I would take it one step further and say that sustainability will be won or lost in cities, in the global south,” she says to VEP.

The reason for her claim is the incredible city growth rate in countries like China and Nigeria, combined with the fact that cities generate 75 percent of all so called final energy use related CO2-emissions.

“More and more cities will be built over the coming decades and we have this really narrow window of opportunity to get things right,” says Xuemei Bai.

The pace of growth is a major concern for the climate, according to the professor, however, that does not mean that all hope is lost.

“Cities are where the cultural and technological innovations are happening, and where the financial and knowledge capacities exist. So, they are also where the solutions to many of our problems exists. It will be really important that the construction industry, city planners and builders incorporate these findings in their work to build more sustainable and low carbon infrastructure in the future. The procurement process can have a significant role in terms of changing the entire supply chain and forcing them to innovate to build more sustainable and low carbon infrastructure in the future.”

Volvo Environment Prize jury citation:

Cities play a critical role in both causing and potentially solving many of today’s sustainability challenges. Professor Xuemei Bai is one of the most active global thought leaders in urban sustainability research, working across scales and tackling both theoretical and applied challenges with a focus on urban development in East Asia. Her pioneering inter- and trans-disciplinary research focuses on understanding the complexity of the social, ecological and economic drivers and impacts of urbanization, and the science and policy of urban sustainability transitions.

She and co-authors introduced the concept of urban sustainability experiments – novel practices with significant potential to change the status quo. Most of Professor Bai’s research has clear policy implications, spanning from identifying and testing local solutions to addressing broader national and global policy challenges.

Direct impacts of her research include the proliferation of solar energy use in Rizhao City, as well as the development of sustainable urbanization strategies in the western region of China and the regeneration of forests using native tree species at mining sites in Japan. She has contributed to regional and international science initiatives including the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, IPCC and Future Earth, in particular leading the development of the Urban-Knowledge Action Network.

Professor Bai’s work is an outstanding example of the application of research to policy and practice. She is a most deserving recipient of the Volvo Environment Prize in 2018.