Cities have a crucial role to play in our world’s response to climate change. According to UN Habitat, urban centers account for more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions, despite occupying less than 2% of the Earth’s surface. In an effort to reduce their contribution to global warming, local governments have been working hard to curb emissions, often through innovative approaches like promoting electric vehicle uptake and transitioning to sustainable architecture.
However, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential to long-term climate stability, it won’t be enough to avoid extreme weather and slow-onset risks locked in by decades of historic emissions. To protect residents, maintain vital services and safeguard critical infrastructure, urban planners must focus on making cities climate resilient. Doing this will require planners to incorporate the latest data-driven insights made possible by Climate Intelligence (CI).
Find out more about integrating Climate Intelligence into your city planning with Cervest's free ebook.
The climatic hazards facing cities
Climate change is creating a number of physical risks for cities and their growing number of inhabitants. As global temperatures rise, cities will become increasingly susceptible to the urban heat island effect, which is where artificial, heat-absorbent materials like concrete make cities significantly hotter than the surrounding countryside. With extreme heat comes the heightened risk of medical issues, including heat stroke and respiratory difficulties. Heat can also inflict damage to buildings and key assets by causing metal to rust faster and materials like tarmac to expand beyond designed limits. By 2100, it’s estimated that climate change and urban heat will cost cities an average of 5.6% of their GDP.
As the planet continues to warm, rising sea levels and more severe storms will increase flooding across the world. This is particularly problematic for cities, which are already prone to surface flooding due to their higher concentration of paved surfaces and interference with natural drainage routes. Without intervention, areas home to 300 million people will “fall below the elevation of an average annual coastal flood” by 2050. By 2100, land home to 200 million “could sit permanently below the high tide line.”
Other forms of climate volatility can create crippling problems for cities. Water supplies are increasingly precarious: in 2018, Cape Town nearly ran dry. At the height of the crisis, the South African capital was just 90 days away from “turning off the taps.” Shocks like storms can knock out electricity supplies, while stresses like volatile temperatures render energy grids unable to cope with additional heating and cooling needs. According to C40, the interconnected nature of cities means that failure in one part of the system caused by a climatic event “can affect another part, multiplying the damage”.
Making cities climate resilient
To tackle these and other challenges due to climate change, urban planners must focus on making cities climate resilient through adaptation. According to the latest IPCC report, adaptation is effective at reducing vulnerability and climate-related risk, however the window of opportunity to “shift pathways towards more climate resilient development futures” is narrowing. City planners must act quickly to avoid adaptation limits.
Adaptation in cities can take various forms, depending on the specific hazards an urban area is facing. For example, planners responsible for cities vulnerable to extreme heat can deploy solar-reflective pavements to counter the urban heat island effect and plant trees to create shaded areas. Likewise, planners responsible for areas exposed to storm surges can build sea walls and invest in Nature-based solutions such as vegetation flood defenses that dissipate wave energy. These measures not only protect city residents, they also contribute to a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs).
While the exact route to resilience varies from city to city, UN Habitat says the process of adaptation begins in the same place, with “a climate change vulnerability assessment” that includes present and potential risks “to people, community assets and community functions.” To be decision-useful, such assessments must map risk at the asset level and account for various time horizons and multiple emissions scenarios, such as Paris-aligned and 2040 emissions peak.
Without this insight, city planners run the risk of maladaptation, where poorly-laid adaptation plans backfire, incurring greater socioeconomic damage to cities. City planners can minimize maladaptation by incorporating data-driven insights into their adaptation planning and accounting for potentially adverse consequences of their actions.
Bridging the knowledge gap with Climate Intelligence
As many city planners know, performing an accurate vulnerability assessment has been historically difficult. Climate data is too complex to decipher in house, while third-party analyses are often expensive and too generalized to be truly actionable. This is changing, however, due to the emergence of a new capability analyst firm IDC recently labeled ‘Climate Intelligence’.
Climate Intelligence, or CI, leverages peer-reviewed science and machine learning to enable city planners to conduct granular, asset-level analysis of climate risk. Equipped with these insights, planners can understand how climate change will impact assets and infrastructure across different climate scenarios and time scales, enabling them to prioritize adaptation for vulnerable assets, adjust development projects to compensate for emerging hazards, and plan proactive maintenance measures.
Learn more about what Climate Intelligence is and how it can benefit city planning, download Cervest’s free ebook.
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