Cities are also one of the most vulnerable parts of human society to the effects of climate change, and are likely one of the most important solutions for reducing the environmental impact of humans.
The Impact of Large Cities on our Climate
As part of our series on climate change, we look at how climate change effects us in cities. Is the impact from global warming as bad for our living environment as everyone assumes?
Climate change and cities are deeply connected with cities being one of the greatest contributors to climate change.
Cities are also one of the most vulnerable parts of human society to the effects of climate change, and likely one of the most important solutions for reducing the environmental impact of humans.
More than half of the world's population is in cities, consuming a large portion of food and goods produced outside of cities. Hence, cities have a significant influence on construction and transportation—two of the key contributors to global warming emissions. Moreover, because of processes that create climate conflict and climate refugees, city areas are expected to grow during the next several decades, stressing infrastructure and concentrating more impoverished peoples in cities.
Because of the high density and effects like the urban heat island effect, weather changes due to climate change are likely to greatly affect cities, exacerbating existing problems, such as air pollution, water scarcity and heat illness in the metropolitan areas. Moreover, because most cities have been built on rivers or coastal areas, cities are frequently vulnerable to the subsequent effects of sea-level rise, which cause coastal flooding and erosion, and those effects are deeply connected with other urban environmental problems, like subsidence and aquifer depletion.
A report by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group described consumption-based emissions as having significantly more impact than production-based emissions within cities. The report estimates that 85% of the emissions associated with goods within a city is generated outside of that city. Climate change adaptation and mitigation investments in cities will be important in reducing the impacts of some of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions: for example, increased density allows for redistribution of land use for agriculture and reforestation, improving transportation efficiencies, and greening construction (largely due to cement's outsized role in climate change and improvements in sustainable construction practices and weatherization). Lists of high impact climate change solutions tend to include city-focused solutions; for example, Project Drawdown recommends several major urban investments, including improved bicycle infrastructure, building retrofitting, district heating, public transit, and walkable cities as important solutions.
Because of this, the international community has formed coalitions of cities (such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and ICLEI) and policy goals, such as Sustainable Development Goal 11 ("sustainable cities and communities"), to activate and focus attention on these solutions.
5 Big Ideas to Address the Climate Crisis and Inequality in Cities
City life can be deeply unfair. This was true before the coronavirus pandemic exposed just how differently the rich and poor are able to cope with lockdowns, from the ability to work from home to access to green space. The pandemic's devastating impacts on vulnerable groups have only widened existing fault lines tied to income, race and postal codes.
Cities face many longer-term trends underlying vulnerability for hundreds of millions of people. Even as poverty has declined globally, the share of poor people living in urban areas is rising worldwide. Meanwhile, cities are more likely to experience flooding and extreme heat than in years past, and the poorest residents are hardest hit by these events. Increasingly, cities need solutions that address both climate change and inequality together.
The good news is that cities remain creative dynamos, constantly innovating and changing. Below are five big ideas for how to reduce urban inequality and respond to climate change at the same time. Chosen from more than 260 submissions, these projects are the finalists for the 2020-2021 WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities.
1. Community-managed Public Spaces in Nairobi, Kenya
Daniel Odalo, a community leader for KDI’s fifth public space, in discussion with members of the community organization for space. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable CitiesKibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, is perched precariously alongside the Ngong River. Home to more than 300,000 people, this informal settlement is plagued by poor drainage and sanitation, precarious housing and limited public space. Few city services reach the neighbourhood. As climate change has brought larger storms and heavier rains, Kibera's residents are among the hardest hit in Nairobi — facing flooding, sewage overflows and mudslides. Up to 40% of homes in the neighbourhood regularly experience flooding.
In 2006, the nonprofit Kounkuey Design Initiative launched in Kibera with an approach to improving drainage and sanitation that relies on participatory, step-by-step upgrades of existing infrastructure. Working with community-based organizations, the initiative created a network of public spaces where both built and natural infrastructure, including areas of the restored riverbank, help protect the community from floods and reduce pollution across Nairobi's watershed.
Co-created and managed by local residents, Kounkuey Design Initiative's 11 public spaces provide the community with more than just flood controls. They are also places to play, learn and earn a living. The projects build a sense of ownership and pride within the community — and they work, showing it's possible to give all city residents safe, accessible and climate-resilient public spaces.
2. The World's Largest Clean Air Zone in London, United Kingdom
The ULEZ uses road fees to reduce air pollution, creating a cleaner, healthier and more equitable London for all. Photo: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities in the UK's capital, air pollution — much of it from car traffic — is a problem of both climate change and social justice. Low-income and historically marginalized Londoners are most likely to breathe polluted air, yet least likely to own cars. While over 95% of residents are exposed to illegal and unsafe air pollution, children, immigrants and people of colour experience air pollution that is 16% worse on average.
World's Largest Clean Air Zone in London, United Kingdom
Efforts to combat air pollution go back to 2003 when London introduced its congestion charge, a fee applied to all vehicles driven within the city centre. In 2019 the mayor's office took this policy a step further by implementing the world's first Ultra Low Emission Zone. Now, in 21 square kilometres (8 square miles) of central London, all drivers must abide by strict vehicle emissions standards or pay a fee. Revenue from the fee is then reinvested into the city's public transport system.
The policy has led to 44,000 fewer polluting vehicles in the city every day, and a 44% reduction in roadside nitrogen dioxide (a gas that is harmful to human health) in the first 10 months. Fewer cars also mean fewer greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.
The Ultra-Low Emission Zone doesn't work alone; it complements a package of efforts, from investments in electric buses to low-emission school zones, aimed at aggressively reducing air pollutants across the city. A targeted approach prioritizes marginalized communities with the worst air quality. The Ultra-Low Emission Zone is set to cover 18 times more area by the end of 2021, to encompass London's outlying areas as well.
3. Urban Agriculture for Climate Resilience in Rosario, Argentina
City residents shop for locally-grown fruits and vegetables at a market in Rosario. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable CitiesThe city of Rosario is already tackling rising temperatures and precipitation due to climate change. These changes are happening amid a lingering legacy of urban inequality from Argentina's 2001 economic crisis, which left over one-quarter of Rosario's residents unemployed. When the city began its strategic climate planning in 2014, officials sought to reorient the strengths of existing initiatives toward increased climate resilience, starting with the city's flagship urban agriculture program.
Rosario's urban agriculture program gives low-income residents ownership of unused public land to cultivate for food. Over 75 hectares of land have been converted into gardens for fruits and vegetables that are sold across seven local farmers markets. This conversion of land is providing new income to poorer residents. It also helps the city increase resilience to floods and combats the urban heat island effect. The gardens' soil absorbs water during heavy rain, alleviating pressure on weak drainage systems and naturally cooling the air.
Since the program has evolved into a cornerstone of Rosario's climate response, its previously undervalued climate change mitigation benefits have also become more apparent, as more local food helps lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation in the food supply chain.
The Sustainable Food Production for a Resilient Rosario was announced as the 2020-2021 Prize for Cities grand prize winner on June 29, 2021.
4. University-led Compact and Connected Urban Design in Monterrey, Mexico
Monterrey residents enjoying the open streets of Callejero, a monthly open streets event. Today, the city is a connected, compact and thriving urban centre. Photo by DistritoTec Over the past three decades, Monterrey has grown into a sprawling, low-density city — growth that has come with high environmental and social costs. As Monterrey has built out, many residents and businesses have left the city centre for more car-dependent outer neighbourhoods. Violent crime from the country's drug war caused even more residents to move outward, intensifying the cycle of sprawl that leaves many residents needing to travel very long distances for essential services.
In 2010, violence came to a head and touched the Tec community directly with the deaths of two students. Faced with the choice of moving out of the city centre to keep students safe, or working with the community to develop a solution, the university chose the latter. Tecnológico de Monterrey created a team to pioneer DistritoTec, an initiative to create more dense inner-city neighbourhoods and draw residents back into a safe, desirable Monterrey.
DistritoTec creates compact, mixed-use neighbourhoods that minimize the need for car travel and provide an array of urban amenities, like parks, community centres and event programming. The approach fosters sustainable mobility through its complete streets program, which installs bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings, and revitalizes underused and abandoned spaces into public parks and plazas.
The university-led model has also transformed Monterrey's public policy to better support a more equitable, sustainable urban future, including a new regulation allowing inner-city neighbourhoods to increase density, a new collaborative model for district governance, improving access for all residents to core urban services and making it easier to get around without a car.
5. Women Leading Community Climate Resilience in Ahmedabad, India
A Vikasini, or local woman leader, teaches Ahmedabad residents about home energy audits. Photo by Mahila Housing TrustIn Ahmedabad, urbanization intersects with climate change-induced heat extremes, water scarcity, flooding and public health. As in Nairobi and many other cities with large informal settlements, residents of slums are particularly affected, as their homes are less protected from flooding and extreme heat. Women are also more vulnerable to environmental hazards at home, as their livelihoods often depend on home-based work.
Mahila SEWA Housing Trust began training local women leaders (Vikasinis) to conduct climate vulnerability assessments in Ahmedabad's slums. Between them they closed the gap with the solutions on offer and the specific needs of slum communities.
After a deadly heatwave in 2010 claimed more than 1,300 lives, the Mahila SEWA Housing Trust began training local women leaders (Vikasinis) to conduct climate vulnerability assessments in Ahmedabad's slums. The group also tested practical climate resilience solutions for households and neighbourhoods through partnerships with technical institutions, innovators and technology providers.
By bringing together this diverse set of actors, the housing trust and the Vikasinis closed the gap between solutions on offer and the specific needs of slum communities. They produced technically suitable and financially attainable upgrades — such as white paint to reflect sunlight off rooftops and keep homes cooler, rooftop catchment systems to collect water during heavy rains, and water meters to help the community avoid wastage — that mitigate climate risks from the ground up.
Local communities and female leaders now have increased access to city-level initiatives and decision-making, and have helped make climate resilience a municipal priority. Beyond Ahmedabad, the Mahila Housing Trust has inspired similar models, which now reach more than 125,000 people in 107 slums across six other South Asian cities.
How Climate Change Effects Us - The Biggest Polluters
Cities with the Biggest Carbon Footprints
Thinking about worldwide production of greenhouse gases can boggle the mind and make the scale of the problem seem unfathomable. But a new study showing 18% of all global emissions come from just 100 cities demonstrates how local action can meaningfully reduce pollution.
Seoul in South Korea topped a list of carbon footprints of 13,000 cities compiled by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Guangzhou in China, with a population of 14 million, came second on the list, followed by New York City.
Image: Global Gridded Model of Carbon Footprints
In more than half of the 187 countries assessed, the top three urban areas were responsible for more than 25% of all national emissions.
The worst offenders
On a per capita basis, Hong Kong topped the list, followed by Mohammed Bin Zayed City and Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Four Chinese cities made up the top 10 per capita, as well as the US cities of New Orleans and Detroit.
Hong Kong was the only city to appear in the top 10 on an absolute and per capita basis. It has responded to the Paris Agreement – which aims to ensure the global average temperature doesn't rise beyond 2°C, compared to the pre-industrial level – by setting out plans to lower carbon emissions by 2030.
World's Worst Offenders - Carbon Footprint Per Capita
How Climate Change Effects Us - Hong Kong's View Point
Hong Kong reflected what needed to be done to correct the results shown above in the Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2030+ report.
Under the leadership of the Chief Secretary for Administration, the whole Government worked hard to review past efforts and to push ahead with a new
carbon emissions reduction target for 2030.
Hong Kong's air pollution is mainly contributed by motor vehicles, marine vessels and power plants. The two greatest challenges are local street-level pollution and regional smog. Diesel vehicles, particularly trucks, buses and light buses, are the main source of street-level pollution.
The Paris Agreement provided the right momentum to stimulate governments to keep tracking efforts and pushing forward continuously. New plans continue to phase down coal in local electricity generation, optimise the implementation of renewable energy, make buildings and infrastructure more energy efficient, improve public transport and promote walking as a mobility means. Basically they are willing to strengthen the climate-readiness of the city as a whole, ‘cool’ the city through landscaping and partner with stakeholders so that the community can be climate-resilient now and in the long-term.
MESSAGES FROM HONG KONG'S PRINCIPAL OFFICIALS
"Outdoor workers and low-income families are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,
especially rising temperatures. We will work with employers, stakeholders and districts to see how
best to prepare ourselves to cope with such risks." Stephen Sui Acting Secretary for Labour and Welfare
"The business sector is becoming more and more aware of climate change and its impacts. Industries have to see to it that energy efficiency is an integral part of their business considerations and the use of resources is optimized in daily operations. I welcome this trend." Gregory So Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development
"Innovation and technology has an important role in dealing with climate change. Our work to integrate ‘smart’ technologies into various aspects of life in Hong Kong will help to make the use of energy, water and material resources more efficient and effective." Nicholas Yang Secretary for Innovation and Technology
One of the Hong Kong Government’s most successful public awareness campaigns is food waste reduction. The target is to reduce food waste by 40% sent to landfill by 2022.
Let's hope all these pledges for change make a marked difference in their ranking and lowers Hong Kong's current impact on global pollution.
How Climate Change Effects Us - UAE's View Point
Abu Dhabi is replanting mangroves in the fight against climate change.
Coordination of Efforts The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) will lead and coordinate efforts to execute the UAE Net Zero by 2050 strategic initiative and ensure collaboration at national level to fulfil this objective. Stakeholders in key sectors, such as energy, economy, industry, infrastructure, transport, waste, agriculture, and the environment, will update relevant plans, strategies, and policies, and implement initiatives and projects to achieve net zero by 2050 in line with their needs and growth requirements.
Federal and local government authorities will be responsible for preparing comprehensive studies and developing plans that introduce the measures necessary to reduce emissions while also ensuring economic growth based on principles of sustainability.
Renewable Energy The deployment and use of clean energy solutions is one of the main pillars of the UAE’s model of addressing the challenge of climate change and reducing GHG emissions. The country began financing clean energy projects more than 15 years ago, and has invested over 40 billion USD in the sector to date. Current trends predict the production capacity of clean energy, including solar and nuclear, to reach 14 GW by 2030, up from about 100 MW in 2015 and 2.4 GW in 2020.
The UAE supports green infrastructure and clean energy projects worldwide, and has invested in renewable energy ventures worth around 16.8 billion USD in 70 countries with a focus on developing nations. It has also provided more than 400 million USD in aid and soft loans for clean energy projects.
The UAE’s History of Climate Action The UAE Net Zero by 2050 strategic initiative builds on the country’s three decades of climate efforts and represents a strategic target for the next three decades.
How Climate Change Effects Us - To Sum Up
Authority Commitment Governments can make policies and we can commit to action plans but the planet needs people to be engaged and committed to making the changes necessary for a safer future. The governments set the bar for the influencers to follow.
Business Commitment It's wonderful that so many business leaders take climate change seriously as it's those path carvers that will transform the way their employees think on the inside and also the way their clients see them on the outside. We also know that investors and shareholders are much happier knowing that the company they are sinking their investments into are thinking about the future in a positive way. Companies that are climate-ready and use natural resources more efficiently are setting themselves up for true all-round success.
Public Commitment The public too must participate. Each of us can choose to be more resource efficient – we
can use less energy and water, don’t waste food, choose public transport, walk more and
reduce our overall level of waste. Only then can we have a chance to meet the goals in the
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