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.

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. 


IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Chapter 8: Urban Areas
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013
This chapter of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report focus on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability in urban areas. It argues that urban climate adaptation can build resilience and enable sustainable development and that action in urban centres is essential to successful global climate change adaptation.
Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report
, 2014
An overview of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report  The Synthesis Report (SYR) of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) provides an overview of the state of knowledge concerning the science of climate change, emphasizing new results since the publication of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) in 2007.
Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014
Summary for policymakers on climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation, based on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. As part of the Working Group II (WGII) contribution to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this summary for policymakers focuses on recent work assessing climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation. Compared to previous WGII reports, this assessment considers a substantially larger knowledge base of relevant scientific, technical, and socioeconomic literature.
Building urban food resilience: assessing the peri-urban food system in Kathmandu Nepal
Institute For Social And Environmental Transition ISET-Nepal, 2008
This report from ISET-Nepal describes how agricultural production in urban and peri-urban areas of inland city, Kathmandu, has become unable to meet food security demands due to rapid urban growth and decreased water availability and water pollution. The report describes the physical, environmental and social vulnerabilities of the food system and populations of the Kathmandu valley.
Sheltering from a gathering storm: Typhoon resilience in Vietnam
Institute For Social And Environmental Transition, 2014
This case study documents the rapid urbanization and economic development of Da Nang, a city in central Vietnam. It’s geography – being located on the tropical storm belt, and characterised by both mountain ranges and low-lying coastal areas – renders it a disaster prone city affected by various water-related hazards which translate into catastrophe on an annual basis. Typhoons are a particular threat, with storms hitting the city between 3-5 times per year and affecting 80-90% of the population.
Rio de Janeiro City’s early warning system for heavy rain
Evidence and Lessons from Latin America, 2013
The city of Rio de Janeiro has developed a highly efficient early warning system (EWS) that is having an impressive impact after just three years in operation. The measures employed are innovative, inclusive and non-resource intensive, and are thus highly applicable to cities in other developing regions. Cities such as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, that are highly vulnerable to rain-induced disasters due to inappropriate land-use on a massive scale, can greatly reduce risks with timely employment of early warning systems (EWS).
Landslide risk reduction measures by the Rio de Janeiro City Government
World Bank, 2012
This chapter gives the history of the GEO-RIO foundation, an institute of geotechnics of the municipal government, which has been working to map the risk of landslides and develop prevention measures for almost 50 years. This article highlights their work since the 2010 floods, with the city Mayor, to develop a Disaster Risk Reduction Action Plan, which includes newer technologies for mapping risk, stabilising areas, early warning systems and protecting vulnerable populations.

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


The relevance of ‘resilience’?
Overseas Development Institute, 2012
This policy brief presents the understanding gained in the course of a research programme between 2011-2013. It argues that for the resilience discourse to make a continued contribution to international aid, and in particular for the role of humanitarian action, a change in its direction is now needed. Key messages include: The concept of resilience is at the centre of current debates in development, climate change adaptation and humanitarian aid.
Defining climate compatible development
Climate and Development Knowledge Network, 2010
"Climate compatible development" is development that minimises the harm caused by climate impacts, while maximising the many human development opportunities presented by a low emissions, more resilient, future. Climate change and responses to it are changing patterns of innovation, trade, production, population distribution and risk in complex ways. This is creating a new development landscape for policy makers, who need to nurture and sustain economic growth and social development in the face of multiple threats and uncertainties while also cutting emissions or keeping them low.
Embedding climate change resilience in coastal city planning: early lessons from Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
Climate and Development Knowledge Network, 2013
This ‘Inside story on climate compatible development’ by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network summarises guidelines for climate change adaption in the coastal city of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia. It outlines the process leading to creation of the guidelines and highlights how they lay the foundation for a full municipal adaptation plan.
Mixing integrated coastal zone management and green growth in Colombia. A recipe for resilient coastal cities?
ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, 2013
Nearly twelve percent of Colombia´s population lives in five coastal cities with more than 170000 inhabitants.
City level climate change plans and policies
Evidence and Lessons from Latin America, 2014
This article is published by the Evidence and Lessons from Latin America (ELLA) Learning Alliance on Climate Resilient Cities. This was a four-month online learning exchange between policymakers, practitioners and researchers from Latin America, Africa and South Asia who are policymakers, practitioners and researchers working on urban climate change issues.
The Global Cities Covenant on Climate “Mexico City Pact”: A strategic Global Instrument for Cities and Local Governments Combatting Climate Change
Fundación Pensar. Planeta, Política, Persona, 2012
The Mexico City Pact was launched at the World Mayors Summit on Climate in Mexico City on 21 November 2010. It is signed by 207 cities and local governments worldwide and this report compiles progress achieved in the first two years.
Urban low carbon growth: financing opportunities for Indian cities
ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, 2013
This report, prepared by ICLEI South Asia with support from the British High Commission in Delhi discusses the opportunities for urban climate finance in Indian cities. It starts by detailing the context of urbanisation in India, and its impacts upon governance at the city and local government levels. It outlines India’s impacts with regards global GhG emissions, noting the city areas are the major sources.
Climate finance for cities and buildings - a handbook for local governments
UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, 2014
This handbook has been developed by UNEP to provide an overview and capacity-building for local government stakeholders about mechanisms to finance climate change adaption and mitigation. The second chapter lays out the international context to climate change mitigation, including the key challenges and opportunities for both cities and buildings, suggesting some tools to access climate finance. The third outlines the ‘Measuring, Reporting and Verification’ (MRV) principles, arguing they are very important for GHG mitigation activities.
Justice in urban climate change adaptation: criteria and application to Delhi
Ecology and Society, 2013
The authors argue that it is not only important to understand if adaptation as it is implemented in cities is just, but that the way in which it is conceptualized and planned must be just too. They call for the development of clear criteria for identifying justice in urban scale climate change responses. This article is organized into three sections. It begins by contextualizing the concept of climate justice at the urban level by describing the adaptation challenges faced by cities and how vulnerabilities intersect with them.
Contesting climate justice in the city: Examining politics and practice in urban climate change experiments
Science Direct, 2014
The concept of climate justice has been debated and contested at the scale of international climate change negotiations. Bulkeley and colleagues introduce the ways in which climate justice is being conceptualised, debated and pursued at the urban scale. They suggest it is practical and necessary to do so to achieve the broad aims of climate justice, because while attempts at international level seek to reduce power inequalities between states, such inequalities also exist within nation-states and impact upon the experience of climate change for the poorest and most vulnerable.