Our Perspectives

Unlocking climate action: Why cities are at the forefront


By 2060, more than a billion people will be living in cities in low-lying coastal zones, the vast majority in developing countries. Photo: Igor Rugwiza/MINUSTAH

In this blog series, UNDP experts share their perspectives in the lead-up to the next climate summit, COP22, taking place in November in Marrakech, Morocco.

Tehran, Managua, Vancouver, Manila, Montreal, Ouagadougou, New York: seven cities I love and have had the pleasure of living in! Each is rich in beauty, history, and culture, and has its own unique urban characteristics.  But there is a shared threat faced by these cities that if left unaddressed has the ability to jeopardize their entire existence. The threat of climate change.

From droughts, storms, and heat waves, to floods and hurricanes, these cities are all exposed to risks from climate hazards and natural disasters in one way or another. My hometown, Tehran, is at serious risk of water scarcity, with its major reservoirs reaching critically low levels in the past couple of years due to reduced rainfall and increase in temperature.

Vancouver and New York are in coastal zones, areas particularly vulnerable to storm surges and rising sea levels over the coming decades. New Yorkers got a glimpse of what this may look like in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy shut down all services in my neighbourhood for days and in many others for weeks. A few years prior, in 2009, many people were left homeless in Ouagadougou due to major floods and the heaviest rainfall the city has seen in 90 years.  In Manila - capital of the country TIME magazine has called “Ground-zero for Climate Disaster” – people are constantly battling the impacts of storms and typhoons. 

So what about other cities? Globally, seventy percent of cities are already dealing with effects of climate change, and nearly all are at risk. Cities produce three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and consume over two-thirds of the energy supply. By 2060, more than a billion people will be living in cities in low-lying coastal zones, the vast majority in developing countries. Average global flood losses, estimated at about US$6 billion per year in 2005, could increase to $52 billion by 2050 in 136 of the world’s largest coastal cities.

These figures underscore the vulnerability of urban centres to climate change. But cities can also be a transformative force in promoting climate-smart growth, and in engineering cleaner, zero-carbon and resilient development pathways. They can be hubs for technological progress and innovation.

Many cities, for example, have already embarked on a path to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through more efficient and modernized energy, transport, waste, water and telecommunications infrastructure, and by transitioning towards 100 percent renewable energy. Others are anticipating climate risks and have put in place measures to better withstand severe weather events and to respond more effectively to disasters.

At UNDP, we are working with cities, and with sub-national and local governments, on all of these issues. We support the integration of climate and disaster risk considerations into sub-national and local development and budgetary planning processes. We are helping implement adaptation, mitigation and integrated urban solutions in many cities around the world. We also support preparedness and recovery from natural disasters. 

In Kazakhstan, with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), we are supporting the modernization of heating systems, and improving energy efficiency of buildings in urban centres across the country. These measures are helping reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, while producing cost-savings and improving the overall wellbeing of residents.

In the Russian Federation, UNDP is helping with the design of sustainable urban transport schemes with multiple benefits, from improving safety and urban mobility, to reducing air pollution and environmental impacts. Integrated traffic management strategies have already been approved in the cities of Kazan and Kaliningrad.

In Honduras, UNDP is working to increase resilience to water-related risks for the urban poor in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, two areas of the country most at-risk to water scarcity and natural disasters. This work includes mainstreaming climate and disaster risk considerations into water policy frameworks to safeguard future water supplies.

In India, UNDP is strengthening capacities of municipal officers, planners, and NGOs to manage risks in cities across the country. This work includes helping prepare disaster management plans, revising building bylaws to strengthen building codes, and conducting hazard risk vulnerability assessments. UNDP is also promoting the use of modern devices and information technology that can guide city administrations in preparing for and recovering from disasters.

In several other countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bangladesh, Jordan, Ethiopia, Moldova, Paraguay, Thailand, Maldives, Belarus and Malaysia, UNDP is supporting cities and subnational and local municipalities on integrated energy, waste management, and transport and mobility solutions. This integrated approach to urban solutions is an emerging area of work with a growing number of initiatives around the world.

Momentum is also growing at the political level, with the emergence of coalitions such as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. This coalition aims to strength climate leadership building on commitments from more than 7,100 cities, representing 600 million people. According to one of the reporting platforms for the coalition, Carbon Disclosure Project, the number of cities reporting on their climate action has jumped 70 percent since the Paris Agreement was adopted late last year.

This week, UN Member States are gathering in Quito, Ecuador, at the Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III, to adopt the next global urban agenda. A few weeks later, they will meet again for the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakesh, where they will discuss the implementation of the Paris Agreement and its early entry into force.  The engines driving these two transformational agendas are the cities of the world, where unlocking climate action begins.

blog series Blog post Climate change and disaster risk reduction Urbanization Climate change Renewable energy Bahareh Seyedi

UNDP Around the world