Cities: Catalysing Climate Change Action

20th July 2015

From 8-10 June, stakeholders in urban areas around the globe will descend on Bonn, Germany for the sixth time, to talk about making cities more resilient to climate change.

The links between cities and climate change are increasingly pertinent; 54 per cent of the world’s people live in cities and 37-49 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) – which drive climate change – are produced by them. With these links come two major risks: the growing climate vulnerability of cities, and the pressing need to reduce global GHGs.

Alex Proimos | Flickr - content

Source: Alex Proimos | Flickr

Cities are rapidly urbanizing and informal settlements are increasingly common in the Global South as poor migrants move to find livelihoods and services. Informal settlements tend to emerge in areas particularly exposed to prime hazards – such as riverbanks and hills.

Often, even formal settlements do not consider disaster risk reduction in planning processes. Urban planners may ask, “What’s the urgency to deal with climate change, when we have more pressing development priorities like food security, education, and economy?”

The answer is that a great proportion of urban homes and infrastructure across the world are literally vulnerable to experiencing devastating disasters. One tragic illustration was the recent ‘great quake’ in Kathmandu in late April 2015. It claimed 8,046 lives and destroyed large swathes of infrastructure, land and the economy. Urban disasters are a heartbreaking reminder of how important it is to mainstream responses to climate change in city level planning. Cities must act now to increase their future physical, economic and human security.

Global gatherings for local solutions?

The Resilient Cities Congress in Bonn focusses on bringing local governments and climate change experts together to pave the way for innovation in urban adaptation and resilience. The organiser, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability – is one of the institutions who have recognised the need for, and pioneered, urban level climate change financing, planning and responses. Just a glance at the congress programme highlights how sophisticated and nuanced the work already is. The same goes for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP), where countries get together every year to agree on climate change targets.

Even the most experienced of climate change researchers, policymakers and negotiators can find the cities-climate change topic complex and constantly evolving. So where should a policymaker, researcher or member of the wider public who is newer to the debates and issues, begin in thinking and learning about the complex interfaces between cities and climate change?

Eldis has commissioned a Key Issues Guide on this very topic! It aims to outline the broad linkages, and introduce some common themes, with the aid of high quality research from the Global South and North. This infographic and briefing from Cambridge University provide a useful introduction.

The Key Issues Guide narrows its focus along four themes:
adaptation to and mitigation of risks; resilience and transformations; finance and justice.

How can cities adapt to and mitigate against climate change?

Cities can adjust to climate change through infrastructural and behavioural adaptations. Examples include flood defences, fortified critical infrastructure to cope with water hazards or heat stress, urban greenspaces to provide cooling and water absorption, conservation, urban agriculture, development of early warning systems and disaster risk reduction plans.

Even with ‘adaptive capacity’, cities must make mitigation efforts to reduce or prevent their GHG emissions, through new, low carbon technologies and renewable energy sources across different infrastructural sectors like transport, housing and commercial.
Cities can go even further, to resilience and transformation

Researchers recognise the value of individual adaptation and mitigation activities but call for a more joined up approach to producing either: ‘Urban Resilience’ – the ability for a city to withstand, and ‘bounce back’ from climate-related stressors and shocks – or ‘transformation’, a complete overhaul in the way cities operate, to ensure all development is climate compatible and inclusive.

Pelling’s work is very useful in clarifying the concepts of resilience and transformation, by providing city examples. One core theme of the Resilient Cities Congress this year is how to develop ‘integrated climate actions’. Resilience and transformation focus on this very thing: collaborations across sectors and between city governments, the private sector, citizens and civil society to deliver sustainable and coherent city level climate change responses. Cartagena, Columbia provides an interesting example.

Urban resilience and transformation plans: who’s going to finance them?

Even with commitment to developing resilience and reducing emissions, cities – especially in the Global South – still need substantial finances to do so. Global climate financing options have been available since 2009, but city governments do not often have capacity to mobilize them.

Recent work has aimed at making climate finance more available and targeted to urban areas. UNEP’s Climate Finance for Cities and Buildings Handbook is a very useful guide for policymakers and those interested in urban climate finance.

How can cities ensure climate change is dealt with in a just and equitable way?

‘Urban climate justice’ aims to support the groups most vulnerable to climate change to ensure their needs and voices are sufficiently considered in urban climate change decisions.

The major aims are to emphasise the individual and city wide responsibilities and roles with regard to climate change, and to promote the rights of those most severely affected by incorporating social justice concerns to decision-making.

Bulkeley’s work highlights how urban climate justice has been conceptualized and practised to date in five cities.

The 6th Global Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation will encourage innovative thinking, while examining and learning from old and new approaches to support cities in becoming more resilient to a changing climate.