Cities Running Huge Risks by Ingoring Climate Change: UN Habitat Report

I'm one of the many contributing authors for this year's UN Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements, launched in London on Monday (see also BBC). This is the first time that the report, one of the most authoritative sources for analysis on urban issues, has focused on climate change. The picture it paints isn't pretty.

Looking to the middle of this century, and overlaying our understanding of climate change on top of the rates and locations of urban growth, the report invokes a world of “unprecedented disaster, wide-scale disruption and loss face many of the world’s cities.”

 The report tries to balance this dire news by highlighting the leadership and innovation shown by some cities. My own section of the report looked specifically at how Durban (South Africa) has developed an ambitious approach to reducing their emissions. But overall, the message is that cities are simply not doing enough. We are not reducing our emissions or our vulnerabilities enough to avoid serious problems in the future.

Rising Risks
Much of the findings are already part of our popular understanding of climate change. We all know – for example – that coastal cities are in for a rough time. What is new here is the increased precision with which we now understand those risks. That, and the uncomfortable feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when a publication like this makes you consider them all at once. A few highlights:
  • As many as 200 million people will be displaced by climate change by 2050.
  • In coastal North African cities, a 1-2 degree increase in   temperature could lead to sea level rise exposing 6-25 million residents to flooding.
  • By 2070, almost all cities in the top ten exposure to flooding risk category will be located in developing countries (particularly in China, India and Thailand).
  • Today around 40 million people live in a 100-year flood plain. By 2070 the population living at this risk level could rise to 150 million people. The estimated financial impact of a 100-year flood would also rise from US$3 trillion in 1999 to US$38 trillion in this time.
  • In Latin America, 12-81 million residents could experience increased water stress by the 2020s. By the 2050s this number could rise to 79-178 million.

Rising Emissions - Lagging Action
On the emissions side, the report highlights both a lack of effective action among wealthy cities, and the spike in emissions resulting from the developing world following the same car-centered patterns of urbanization perfected in North America. Canadian cities also specifically come under fire:

“Few Canadian cities appear to be prioritizing climate change-related action in land-use planning. While most cities do not acknowledge the emission reduction benefits of growth management and increased density, Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto are making explicit connections between land use and emissions. Yet, even in these three cities – which are leading climate change action in Canada – few specific initiatives address these connections.”

Radical Inequality
Combine the disproportionately high risk faced by cities in the developing world, and the slow pace of action among wealthy cities and it's hard not to notice that with climate change comes a serious issue of inequality and injustice. The people who are going to be hit hardest are those that have benefited the least from the growth that has fueled climate change.

The "TO DO" List
So what to do? If addressing climate change was easy, we wouldn't be talking about it anymore. But there are a few easy to understand issues that are key to creating truly green and climate resilient cities. (Whether we managed to do anything about them once we understand them is another question.):
  1. Create dense walkable, multi-use neighbourhoods that allow people to meet most of their daily needs without have to rely of transit or car use. 
  2. Link transportation and landuse planning to prevent sprawl, cut down on car use, and create neighbourhoods that can easily be served by high quality public transit. (Transportation accounts for 13% of global emissions)
  3. Include in our measures of urban greenhouse gas emissions, the emissions that are produced making the goods that urban residents consume. That kind of consumption-based inventory is essential to any real discussion of how we can cut emissions and reduce global inequalities.[more on that here]
  4. Go beyond narrow inventories of the municipality's own emissions, and develop measures of and programs to reduce residential and industrial emissions that take place within the city. (Residential and Industrial energy use account for 8% and 19% of global ghgs, respectively.)
  5. Takes climate risks seriously, asses them for your city, and begin building them into infrastructure and development plans now. Early action is much cheaper than retrofitting later. (see this and this for more on adaptation planning in the North American context).
image: BBC

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.