Aiming to curb greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100,000 tonnes a year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today launched a multi-million dollar public transport project covering three major Latin American cities that are some of the most polluted on earth.

The project, which was unveiled at the World Urban Forum III gathering in Canada, will be centred on Concepcion, Guatemala City and Panama City and will lead to the creation of modern bus networks, cycle ways and pedestrianization schemes while tackling local air pollution and damage to forests, agricultural land and other key ecosystems.

“In 2007, for the first time in history, more people will be urban than rural dwellers. By 2050, some 6 billion people are expected to be city dwellers. The World Urban Forum is thus an important meeting central to all our interests,” Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, said.

“The urban environment is inextricably intertwined with the rural one and inextricably linked with the way local, regional and global natural resources are soundly and sustainably managed. So it is vital that we get cities right if we are to meet the internationally agreed development goals, if we are to deal with such pressing global issues as climate change.”

Funding for the project will come from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an independent financial organization that provides grants to developing countries for projects that benefit the global environment and promote sustainable livelihoods in local communities, UNEP said. The three cities will also work with others in the region through the new Network for Environmentally Sustainable Transport in Latin American Countries (NESTLAC).

The Forum, which runs through Friday, involves thousands of delegates from across the world and is being organized under the auspices of UN-HABITAT, the agency that aims to achieve sustainable development of human settlements. Mr. Steiner highlighted that UN-HABITAT was UNEP’s key partner in the broader Sustainable Cities Programme working with more than 100 cities worldwide to promote environmental planning and management under Agenda 21, the comprehensive sustainability plan born at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. As part of the Forum, UNEP and its partners are showcasing a study of numerous cities worldwide and looking at how they are managing waste more efficiently.

For example, Hyderabad in India is turning waste into ‘refuse derived fuel’ which, the city says, emits less greenhouse gases than traditional biomass like wood or agricultural wastes. “The rapid rate of urbanization, especially in developing countries, is a fact of life. But some cities are also demonstrating other facts, namely that improving local air quality and curbing waste up to countering greenhouse gas emissions can go hand in hand with that urbanization and with that growth,” Mr. Steiner said.

In a related development, UN-HABITAT announced the appointment of former Mozambique President Joachim Chissano as its Youth Ambassador to ensure that the concerns of young people remain high on the international agenda. A Youth Convention met on the eve of the World Urban Forum, and was capped with the signing of agreements with two organizations working with young people in Africa.