The role of cities in a climate-resilient future

February 10, 2020


As cities take centre stage at the 10th World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, we must recognize the challenges they face but also seize the opportunities, including to connect sustainable cities with global action on climate change--perhaps our biggest challenge of all.

Did you know that in 1800, fewer than 10 percent of people lived in urban areas? Fast forward to today and half of the global population call cities home, and that is on the rise.

This era of urban transition has the potential to transform countries and economies for the better; cities are dynamic centres of innovation, education, commerce and industry. They account for more than 80 percent of today’s global GDP.

At the same time urbanization is also happening alongside pervasive inequality and poverty, gaps in infrastructure, and services, massive human migration, and the existential threat of climate change that could literally leave millions of people underwater and push economies  to a tipping point.

Meanwhile, cities are producing over 70 percent of global carbon emissions.

The challenges

With their increasing populations, outsized disaster risk profiles and environmental footprints, cities are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Yet without a doubt, building efficient, low-carbon cities is essential to a sustainable future.

Some cities are already leading the way, yet stubborn challenges remain..

Municipal governments are faced with competing priorities. They often lack a long-term approach or the resources necessary to invest in resilience measures, effective waste management, or low-carbon, energy-efficient transport and infrastructure.

Many plans, policies, and budgets at the local level don’t account for carbon emissions or climate-related risks. Further, they are not well integrated with national priorities such as National Adaptation Plans or Nationally Determined Contributions.

Despite innovations already underway, setting up systems that track carbon emissions, or show risks at the city block scale, come at a cost many cities cannot afford. This mean cities are struggling to demonstrate need, prioritize action, and get catalytic global finance.

Finally, there are financing challenges. On one hand, in many countries the national government controls municipal finance disbursement, meaning cities have limited control over expenditures. On the other, as the global climate finance community is linked more with national governments, cities often have limited avenues to access large-scale funding.

The opportunities

These are indeed significant challenges. But there are also immense opportunities. Here are four encouraging trends:

National governments are increasingly involving cities in policy and planning processes, including National Adaptation Plans and Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement.

Countries such as Bhutan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Uruguay—a country where more than 90 percent of people live in cities—are already prioritizing urban centres in their adaptation plans. This is helping municipal governments plan for, and fund, critical adaptation measures, while also informing national adaptation priorities.

Governments are increasingly recognizing cities’ innovation in reducing emissions and adapting to climate change.

A couple of recent examples serve to inspire: In Serbia last October, the government showcased city efforts to build resilient, low-carbon communities as part of a national programme focused on climate-smart urban development.

Meanwhile, countries like Malaysia are looking to leadership from cities and seeking to integrate urban climate policy with national programmes, facilitating coordinated local and national climate action.

Several platforms have grown in recent years to encourage the exchange of knowledge between cities facing similar challenges. Examples we can look to include the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate Change and Energy and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, both of which are supporting city leaders to build their skills and evaluate options.

The United Nations Development Programme’s City2City Network is helping connect cities to innovations and learning tools that use a systems approach to planning, thereby integrating efforts to increase resilience, sustainability and inclusivity.

The tide is turning

While historically the bulk of international climate finance has not been dedicated to city-scale solutions, the tide is turning, as reflected in the launch of the Global Environment Facility’s Sustainable Cities Impact Program.

Recognizing the need for increased private investment, the Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment announced a partnership of over 30 organizations with US$5 trillion asset value at the 2019 Global Climate Action Summit. Led by the financial sector, this coalition seeks to integrate climate risks into decision-making for private investment, driving a shift toward a more climate-resilient economy.

The World Urban Forum sets the stage to discuss the challenges, but also to embrace solutions. It’s a critical event in what the Global Commission for Adaptation have declared a “Year of Action” for a climate-resilient future.

There are some encouraging trends. Let’s now seize the opportunities. We have no time to waste.