Climate change

Cities in a changing climate

Cities are acutely exposed to the impacts of climate change but are developing innovative approaches to tackling it.

New York City - Manhattan Skyline 05, Daniel Mennerich CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Edited by Alan Stanley

Cities contain over half of the global population and many are acutely exposed to the increased risk of extreme weather and other impacts associated with climate change. These risks and impacts are set to increase according to the IPCC and are amplified for those more vulnerable sections of society lacking access to essential infrastructure and services.

But cities, particularly in Latin America, South and South East Asia, are responding to the threat of climate change in a variety of innovative ways - developing joined-up policy and practice that combines adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development approaches to analyse exposure to risks and build responsive solutions to address climate change causes and vulnerabilities. 

This Guide will give a brief snapshot - focusing on water, health, and infrastructure themes in a few cities - to highlighted just a small selection of the huge amount that is going on in this vibrant and exciting sector.

Meet the author

Amiera Sawas 

Get the content

Eldis content is published under a under a Creative Commons Attribution Unported (CC-BY) licence. You can embed this guide in your own website.

Embed this guide

Water, infrastructure and health

Some of the greatest risks to cities associated with climate change concern water. The increased frequency and intensity of weather events and natural hazards such as sea-level rise and increased precipitation can lead to floods and landslides. Longer-term impacts such as changes in rainfall patterns can affect food security, health and livelihoods. All challenge local governments to think about climate change in a proactive and cross-sectoral way that simultaneously addresses their own particular context.

Quito and La Paz are situated in the Andean mountains – where glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, threatening water security, and Lima is situated at the edge of a desert and faces significant risks from temperature increases. What’s more, rapid economic growth in these three countries has been connected to fast-rising greenhouse gas emissions, and this link needs to be broken by identifying low-carbon ‘wins’ for economic development.

Cities Footprint Project: Urban impact

A CDKN short film on the Cities Footprint Project: Urban impact

Coastal cities also have unique socio-environmental histories and water-related vulnerabilities which both contribute to climate change and intersect with it to produce greater risks. In Rio de Janeiro, a city of 11.96 million people, its unique geography and development has created a range of vulnerabilities to climate change: especially water-related hazards. The city is characterised by sharp hills, wetlands, forests, rivers and estuaries. Facing coastal erosion and increased precipitation, it is exposed to a number of hazards including floods, typhoons and landslides.

In addition Rio’s rapid population growth and urbanisation have contributed to a highly unequal society. Over 20% the population lives in informal, unregulated, and highly vulnerable settlements which spread up the hillsides. At the same time, economic growth has led to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. 

After the heaviest recorded rainfall led to disaster in April 2010, the city has taken steps to respond to climate change. The City Government has produced adaptation and mitigation strategies through a disaster risk reduction framework and 2011 it produced a Municipal Law on Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

The adaptation and mitigation of infrastructure and business activities have been key responses to urban climate change, due to their major roles in greenhouse gas emissions. Transport, for example, contributes 25% of global emissions, according to the IPCC and also has had direct negative impacts on human health and welfare, due to congestion and pollution. But while developing cities are being expected to adapt and mitigate, concerns remain about the economic impacts, and many city governments face severe constraints in allocating resources for implementation. To overcome these barriers, work is increasingly being conducted to make a case for how adaptation and mitigation could actually be economically beneficial for businesses and governments in the long-term. 


Resilience, transformation and urban climate justice

An additional challenge faced by cities has been that adaptation and mitigation efforts have historically been isolated activities competing for priority and resources and driven by different institutions at national and international level. This has led to calls for a more joined up approach and a variety of concepts competing concepts have emerged that describe how this might be achieved including urban resilience, transformation, and climate compatible development

These approaches are typically driven by city governments, but partnered by citizens, civil society and the private sector. They require collaborations across infrastructure investment, land use, livelihoods, ecosystem services, education and business sectors.

In Cartagena de Indas, for example, around 1 million residents face risks from climate change including coastal erosion sea level rise, flooding, and spread of diseases. Despite existing high levels of poverty, the city continues to experience rapid immigration leading to a growth in low-income settlements in low-lying areas, rendering them particularly vulnerable to climate events. A multi-stakeholder partnership, including the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the Municipal Government and local and international civil society, has developed a pioneering, comprehensive, cross-sectoral strategy to combat climate change.

What is exciting is that coordinated support through national stakeholders and regional and global dialogues is enabling cities like Cartagena to partner and share learning on how to develop these strategies. The “C40 cities” is a network of megacities dedicated to transforming responses to climate change, transparently. The “Compact of Mayors”, is an agreement amongst 2000 mayors to promote transformations through learning, target-setting and accountability. 

An Introduction to C40 - Cycling through 5 megacities


Cities have also been taking action to improve their ability to access climate finance - the financing mechanisms dedicated to supporting developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. In recent years we’ve seen collective action to develop capacity to mobilise climate finance from the international community and to seek new ways of financing, through partnerships with private sector and international civil society.

Finally cities are providing a new focus for the climate justice movement which addresses climate change as an ethical and moral issue; considering how its causes and impacts relate to social and environmental justice and inequality. Increasing attention is being paid to climate justice at the city scale because of the opportunities offered for more micro-level grassroots engagement to promote social justice concerns and rights-based approaches into climate change projects and to promote marginalised voices in urban planning.

Continue reading: Back to introduction