Cities are major contributors to climate change — but they also have the power to change the world. They are essential to addressing the global climate change crisis and some of them, informed by science, are already doing so. More cities must follow in the footsteps of those who are taking action.
The global desire and capacity for change is strong, as demonstrated by the millions of people worldwide taking to the streets demanding climate action. This call for action will be at the forefront of the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change taking place December 2-13 in Madrid. This critical annual meeting brings the international community together to share solutions, galvanize momentum, and to track progress towards the Paris Agreement climate commitments.
We must seize upon these opportunities for collaboration and solution-sharing as the scale and frequency of climate change-related crises continue to grow.
In Africa, and particularly in the Sahel, consequences of climate change are real and significantly affect community livelihoods: crop losses, increased frequency and intensity of floods, increased risks of livestock diseases, increased epidemics of infectious diseases to which children are particularly vulnerable and increased droughts recurring with more frequent water shortages in urban and agricultural supply systems.
For states with national economies still largely relying on rainfall, climate change is a serious obstacle to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and those of the African Union's Agenda 2063. The time for action is now.
Strengthening climate action in cities
Why the focus on cities, and why now? Because of the accelerating pace of urbanization.
By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Cities are already home to more than half the world’s population and the majority of infrastructure, assets, and economic activity. They consume 78 per cent of global energy and account for more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, they cover only two per cent of the world’s surface.
Strong evidence is available to inform local and national governments so that they design resilient cities and mitigate their impact. For vulnerable people living in and around the cities, in particular for women and girls, this may prove a matter of life and death.
Cities must invest in research to understand their unique challenges, how their citizens are affected, and what localized solutions are best-suited to their context.
In the slums of Accra, the capital of Ghana, flooding has caused deaths, destroyed homes, and increased the risk of malaria and waterborne diseases such as cholera. There, Dorinda Grant runs a kindergarten just steps away from a drainage canal. When it rains, the canal floods and filthy water seeps through the walls. Doringa says it’s become worse in recent years because of changing weather patterns.
Working with Doringa and her neighbors, researchers studied the global and regional models on climate change and developed plausible climate scenarios to inform Ghanaian policy-makers and help them design and budget for better water infrastructure — bridges, drains and sanitation, water supply, and irrigation systems.
Many solutions for urban climate adaptation are low-cost, low-tech, and nature-based. In the small industrial city of Yumbo, in Colombia, green infrastructure has been used to mitigate flooding. Paved roads are replaced with porous green roads that allow water percolation and reduce the urban heat-island effect. Results have shown that these roads significantly reduce localized flood hazards.
Proven solutions, backed by rigorous science, exist to many of the climate shocks and stresses facing at-risk cities. Throughout the Global South, urban planners and regional leaders have been working for years to build their capacity to anticipate, adapt, and persevere.
In addition to these efforts, city-level, secure financing is needed to address climate change. The resilience and adaptability of cities in the face of climate change will influence whether global targets on climate change and sustainable development are achieved.
Implementing research findings for resilient cities
When a city is hit with flooding, record rainfalls, and other extreme and damaging weather events, the necessary focus on a crisis response can cloud the bigger picture, which reveals the common ground between the challenges — and solutions — that exist worldwide.
If we are to meet the global commitment to “leave no one behind”, we must tackle the multiple dimensions contributing to urban poverty, vulnerability, and inequality. This means amplifying the commitment to our global climate that will be on display at COP25 in Madrid so that it infuses political, policy, research, and investment agendas worldwide with the imperative need for action.
Santiago Alba-Corral is Director of the Agriculture and Environment Program at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC);
Julie Crowley is the West and Central Africa Regional Director at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).