Believe it or not, there is still an ongoing debate on whether climate change and global warming are an anthropogenically provoked reality or a human-made hoax. Climate change refers to the phenomena resulting mainly from burning fossil fuels and the consequent greenhouse gases emitted, including an increase in global temperature, sea level rise and the melting of the polar ice-caps. Global warming, on the other hand, refers specifically to the long-term temperature increase caused by the same emissions.
The wide spread evidence supporting that climate change is a reality is too extensive and too reliable to be overlooked, and therefore my positioning is aligned with such scientific data and with the certainty that cities hold the key to tackling this threat, given that despite representing merely 2% of the world’s surface, they are responsible for 80% of global emissions and are projected to host two thirds of global citizenry by 2050.
Why urban areas are the most vulnerable
Just like the world’s population continues to grow, challenges are set to increase in cities. With 90% of urban areas located along the coast, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, namely sea-level rise, higher risk of violent storms and even risk of drowning at a faster pace than oceans rise, because of groundwater over-abstraction for irrigation or drinking water production.
Urban drift from rural to urban regions in the search of more favourable professional and economic opportunities is also expected to intensify the density of cities, adding pressure to small portions of urban and peri-urban land as they address the urgency to provide enough resources for all its clustered inhabitants.
Anecdotally, the highest temperature recorded from space by NASA on the last decade corresponded to the Lut Desert in Iran with a maximum 70ºC, whereas black tar New York City rooftops have been measured to reach up to 82ºC in the summer.
The reason behind it is a phenomenon known as Urban Heat Island Effect, yet another obstacle for cities by which they experience considerably higher temperatures than rural areas due to a greater absorption of the sunlight when green spaces are substituted by man-made materials such as asphalt or concrete.
Cities’ relevance in combating climate change
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news for urbanites and citizens of any region in the front-line of the effects of climate change. A higher density of people represents an opportunity for cities to reduce pollution and the effects of global warming through proper infrastructure in urban planning and mobility strategies.
Climate-smart cities could reduce carbon emissions while stimulating economic growth and saving up to $22tn, which shows that cities not only have the capacity and knowledge to develop a low-carbon future, but it’s also in their best interest.
Also, city governors are more capable of implementing context-specific solutions to their prevailing climatic threats and take direct action in solving them, in comparison to national governments. We can see it, for example, in how the US administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was quickly followed by more than 50 major US cities’ commitment to abide by the agreement and a vocal expression of how tackling climate change would enable their cities to become more resilient and competitive in the long run.
Adaptation that starts today
As climate change becomes a reality that cities inevitably have to endure, some are facing this challenge from an adaptive perspective, by implementing measures to reduce a city’s vulnerability to the harmful effects of an already changing weather.
Cities such as Wuhan, which are experiencing increasingly frequent flooding events, have taken on this threat by constructing sponge infrastructure to absorb and redirect excessive water, and creating riverfront parks to avoid waterlogging and promote better rainwater drainage.
Cape Town’s historically most severe drought, which took place between 2015 and 2018, set the precedent for the implementation of measures like free plumbing repairing to avoid water leaks, and the projected removal of invasive non-native plants that currently consume up to 10% of the city’s water supply.
Other cities like Buenos Aires have decided to tackle the higher vulnerability to the effects of climate change experienced by low income communities, like those surrounding Lake Soldati. Turning this area into natural reservoir, with proper storm water drainage and an outreach campaign for residents will help around 700,000 citizens.
Planning for the future
Even if adaptation is crucial, adaptive measures don’t reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and therefore don’t curb the problem in the long term. This situation leaves cities not only challenged to adapt to current adversities but also compelled to implement mitigation measures to effectively reduce the effects of climate change in the future.
In the face of an expected increase in forthcoming extreme weather events, heat waves and sea level rise, New York City has created the OneNYC resilience plan, which includes strategies to protect and restore its coastlines with innovative data analysis, reinforce building retrofits and create a Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines to advise urban planners regarding climate change projections.
Barcelona is addressing its fight against air pollution by expanding the municipality’s tree canopy up to 30% of the its surface by 2037. The city recently created an extensive Climate Plan that aims at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 45% per capita before 2030, and additionally promotes strategies such as the superblocks innovate urban model, whereby certain fragments of the city are closed for exclusive pedestrian use to enhance cleaner air and the liveliness of its streets.
On the other side of the world, in Auckland, mitigation strategies prioritize citizen engagement by involving over 150 stakeholders in the co-creation of the roadmap to achieve the city’s target to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% before 2040. The city also started a revolving fund on 2013 to minimize energy use and emissions, and the reinvested savings are expected to result in over $30 million in the coming 20 years, which will be allocated to further reducing the city’s contribution to climate change.
Cities taking on their responsibility
Recent studies based in Mesopotamia observed that ancient civilizations that experienced climatic changes and didn’t attempt to adapt to such changes ended up collapsing at least partially due to that inflexibility.
In a future that is expected to become increasingly urban and environmentally challenged worldwide, with climate change effects becoming undeniable and more visible, only cities that are resilient and take an innovative approach to their context-specific threats will be able to thrive.
Although the challenge is great, cities need to see its resolution as an empowerment, given their indispensable role in curbing climate change. Through establishing mutually beneficial synergies among cities with similar menaces and a creative approach, it is in cities’ hands to lead the way.
Illustration by Mons Badia.