From increased flooding to public health hazards, cities are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change. Yet government leaders have been slow to take appropriate action, according to a new report by the nonprofit CDP Global, which gathers environmental data on governments and corporations.
CDP Global received environmental data from 620 cities around the world in 2018, and 85% detailed short-, medium-, and long-term climate risks. The nonprofit found that 42% of cities have identified short-term risks, 60% have spotted medium-term risks, and 11% have found long-term risks.
What this shows, according to CDP, is that cities are only partially grappling with climate change. After all, a short-term risk is something that will likely intensify in the long-term. And every city in the world is dealing with the repercussions of climate change in some capacity. As a result of these assessment gaps, governments are failing to properly invest in climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.
This doesn’t mean that cities are failing to take climate action altogether. On the contrary, cities are often leading the way toward a more sustainable future through investments in sustainable infrastructure, renewable energy, and green spaces. With organizations like the Global Covenant of Mayors and C40, city leaders are breathing renewed life into the struggling Paris climate agreement.
Cities hold the bulk of the global population and power national economies. What happens in metropolitan areas can transform human society.
The new CDP outlines dozens of ways in which cities are mitigating and adapting to climate change. Here are seven of the most common ways.
1. Flood mapping
As sea levels rise and tropical storms become stronger, cities are contending with more severe flooding events that displace communities, destroy infrastructure, and grind economic activity to a halt.
In the first half of 2019, more than 7 million people were displaced by natural disasters such as flooding. Some cities, such as Jakarta, are planning to relocate because flooding has become too great of a threat. Other cities, such as Miami, have invested billions in a drainage system to cope with increased flooding.
While it’s not groundbreaking or exciting, more cities are investing in sophisticated flood mapping systems. These efforts help cities to better allocate infrastructure investments, assist at-risk communities, and prepare for crises.
2. Tree planting
There are many high-tech ways to fight climate change, but some of the best solutions involve no technology at all.
In fact, a global effort to plant millions of hectares of trees could revilitatize ecosystems, improve water systems, and shield countries from the consequences of climate change. It could also pull a significant amount of the carbon dioxide currently heating the planet out of the atmosphere.
Tree-planting initiatives in cities are more modest, but they can prevent flooding, filter rainwater, cool the air, improve air quality, and provide stress relief.
In Louisviille, Kentucky, tree-planting initiatives are helping to reduce disparities in air quality, while Milan is embarking on an effort to erect 3 million trees by 2030 to cool temperatures.
3. Heat Mapping
Cities are full of concrete, asphalt, and other materials that absorb rather than deflect heat back into the atmosphere. Cars and air conditions, meanwhile, fill the air with warm exhaust. During heat waves, these dynamics cause what’s known as the “urban heat island effect,” which is when cities become significantly hotter than the surrounding area.
As temperatures rise all around the world, people who live in cities are especially vulnerable to health risks as sidewalks crackle with heat and buildings afford little shaded sanctuary.
Governments are responding to this growing threat by investing in better heat mapping systems to protect at-risk communities. Just like flood mapping, heat mapping can inform city planning decisions such as where to expand parks and whether or not to curb street traffic.
Heat mapping efforts in US cities like Richmond and Washington are illuminating poorer neighborhoods are exposed to higher temperatures, which is helping city planners develop better relief efforts.
4. Flood defenses
Cities can anticipate and prepare for inundation with better flood mapping tools; they can keep their cities dry with better flood defenses.
As rising sea levels submerge streets from Venice to Guangzhou, cities are trying to beat back the ocean with sea walls, drainage systems, coastal forests, and more.
In Guangzhou, mangroves are being planted to counteract the waves, and Venetians are raising sidewalks to keep storefronts safe.
5. Policies targeting the most vulnerable
One of the great ironies of climate change is that the people least responsible for it will be affected the most. This is already playing out around the world as marginalized communities get displaced by storms and flooding, worsening heat waves cause increasing casualties, and food and water insecurity grips poor nations.
Many cities are beginning to develop strategies for helping the most vulnerable populations adapt to climate change. This includes moving people out of areas at high-risk of flooding and other natural disasters, helping people transition into new careers, and improving health care.
Capital cities such as Cairo, Lima, and Dhaka have seen their populations swell in recent years as people from rural areas become displaced by climate events. Citizen-led organizations have emerged in response to these mass migrations to ensure that poor communities receive access to basic rights like housing, water, and food.
6. Green infrastructure
Buildings allow for huge amounts of people to live and work in small areas, making them indispensable to modern cities. But even as buildings make urban life possible, they also threaten the future of it.
That’s because the construction of buildings and their ongoing use of electricity and heat accounts for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unless these emissions are curbed, climate change will dangerously accelerate in the years ahead.
Cities are beginning to overhaul buildings to ensure a more sustainable future. They’re investing in green roofs and siding, improved insulation, and energy efficiency measures such as smart heating and cooling systems. Cities are also investing in sustainable sources of energy so that keeping the lights on in buildings doesn’t result in greenhouse gas emissions.
New York City, for instance, aims to reduce emissions from buildings by 40% by 2030, while Eskisehir, Turkey, is aiming to sustainably retrofit its buildings by 2023.
7. Water security measures
Freshwater is dwindling around the world and cities are beginning to declare emergencies amid unprecedented water shortages. When faced with the prospect of running out of water in 2018, officials in Cape Town deputized “water police” to patrol neighborhoods to stop people from using hoses and letting sinks flow.
Cities are adapting to this grim reality by investing in a variety of water security measures such as restoring aquifers and wetlands, preventing water pollution, and repurposing waste water. Cape Town was able to dramatically reduce its water use, ensuring that its reservoirs can better withstand future droughts.