Recently, catastrophic Venice flooding made headlines around the world, raising questions about the city’s future and providing just a small sample of the growing threat that coastal cities are becoming increasingly exposed to as sea levels continue to rise. In 2017, Cape Town was mere 90 days away from completely running out of water as a result of one of the worst droughts in the history of South Africa. Sydney, Australia is now choking under intense smoke from bushfires at the edge of the city, as a result of extreme heat and droughts, leading to significant health problems. In California and especially its largest city Los Angeles, climate change has already claimed lives: frequent bushfires, mudslides, heatwaves as well as rising sea levels are becoming more common. Whether being coastal or inland, threatened by flooding or droughts, cities around the world are increasingly affected by the effects of climate change. 

Are the cities simply powerless victims, increasingly vulnerable to the changing climate? There are three primary connections between cities and climate change to explore.

The first connection is the increasingly striking vulnerability of cities to climate change. Hundreds of cities around the globe announced a state of climate emergency. 70% of urban areas are already affected by climate change. 90% of urban areas are coastal, being exposed to flooding from rising sea levels and storms. The inland cities are under threats of flash floods, droughts, fires, increasing temperatures and water shortage. This urban vulnerability affects most of us: 55% of global population live in cities, projected to rise to 68% by 2050. And the effects are many – including the impact on overall health, the economy, and workforce.

The hardest hit and most affected are the cities in developing countries, which also tend to be among the fastest growing cities and are the most vulnerable to climate change effects. 90% of the urban population growth in the upcoming three decades will take place in Asia and Africa, where cities already lack resources to provide infrastructures to accommodate their growing population, let alone to build their resilience to climate change. In fact, 95% of cities facing extreme climate risks are on these two continents. 

880 million people worldwide live in slums, in vulnerable unregulated structures on mountain sides or floodplains with no risk-reducing infrastructure. In these areas, climate change further worsens access to already very scarce basic services such as water, sanitation or electricity. The demographic pressure combined with climate change effects is likely to lead to social issues such as crime, civil unrest, worsening health issues, and increasing poverty. Fast population growth acts as a risk multiplier in lower-income cities. Further to social issues, climate change also hinders economic development. Especially in developing countries with very limited resources to build infrastructure to increase their resilience, financial cost to fight climate change adds economic pressure, exercising a double vulnerability. Lagos and Addis Ababa are among the cities with highest economic exposure: $128.5 billion and $69 billion, respectively, of cities’ gross regional product are expected to be at risk of loss to climate change. Low-income countries tend to suffer from lack of governance framework to respond to climate emergency and barriers to access climate finance, hindered by the lack of focus on cities as a strategic priority.

The second connection of the cities-climate change relationship relates to the causes of urban vulnerabilities. In fact, the cities themselves are the biggest contributors to climate change, whose effects hit them so hard. While covering a mere 2% of the Earth’s surface, they consume 78% of global energy and produce over 60% of greenhouse gases. Transport and buildings are the largest contributors to CO2 emissions. Building-related emissions come from the construction process and their operations – such as lighting, heating and cooling. Poor planning resulting in fragmented cities, urban sprawl and lack of public transport leading to car dependency and one person one car lifestyle, they all contribute to climate change.

In developing countries, the causes of pollution tend to differ from developed countries: old cars imported from rich or more developed countries with missing catalytic converters, use of old two-wheeled vehicles, use of steel diesel electricity generators, charcoal for cooking, and missing waste management systems leading to burning of dangerous rubbish in open air all cause and contribute to toxic air pollution and leading to an abnormally high human cost. This is especially seen in Africa with an estimated 712 thousand premature deaths associated with air pollution on the continent – more deadly than dirty water or malnutrition.

However, as much as the cities contribute to and become vulnerable to climate change, they also have the biggest potential to react to it, adapt, and evolve to curb the effects, which brings us to the third part of this relationship. Well-designed and compact cities have the potential to both reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases and become more resilient to climate change effects. The cities need to anticipate the climate change effects and shift from reactive to proactive planning. Planning for resilience does not need to be at the expense of our comfortable urban lifestyle. Resilient cities embracing innovation can be healthier, more attractive to live in, and better for employment and business.

Buildings, transport, and waste management are core to planning for resilience. Energy-efficient net-zero carbon buildings, efficient public transport, and non-motorized transport infrastructure and efficient waste-management systems can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

City governments, in collaboration with national governments, need to act quickly through policies and regulations and embrace changes and innovations to build resilient cities. However, the resilience will be hard to achieve if the population does not embrace it through their everyday habits. The 2017 Cape Town water crisis managed to be contained through quick municipal regulations leading to a radical change in people’s living habits to become water-wise. Lastly, to increase resilience of the world’s most vulnerable cities and their fast-growing populations, the focus must be on urban areas in developing regions, especially in Africa and Asia. Supporting these regions in building governance frameworks to respond to climate emergencies, and accessing climate finance to build climate-resilient infrastructures needs to become a strategic priority. 

About The Author

Profile photo of Anna Tehlova

Anna’s background is in urban policy with a focus on fast-growing cities in developing and emerging countries, especially in Africa. She co-founded and coordinated the Nairobi-based Public Space Network (PSN), an association bringing together a diversity of stakeholders involved around public space management to facilitate public-private-people partnerships and ensure a sustainable management of public spaces across the city through fostering the community ownership of spaces. Under Anna’s leadership, PSN scaled up the international award-winning Changing Faces Competition from the neighborhood to the city-wide level, mobilizing 114 community groups to adopt and transform the same number of previously neglected and abused public spaces into clean, safe and productive community spaces. Currently Anna is travelling through West Africa, researching on how different African cities are affected by the fast urbanization. Anna graduated from Sciences Po University in Paris, with a masters in urban governance with specialization on African and Latin American cities, and bachelor degree in multidisciplinary social sciences with majors in African Studies and Development Economics. Anna speaks English, French, and studied Spanish and Portuguese for over 4 years.