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Cities and climate change

Urban areas need to clean themselves up to remain attractive in a competitive world.

Cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions. They are thus key to tackling climate change. But with more people working from home, and increased geographical mobility, cities need to compete for residents and workers. They thus have an incentive to clean themselves up.

Making cities appealing means providing better public transport, low levels of pollution and open green spaces.

Two-thirds of the global population is likely to live in urban areas by 2050 according to UN projections. But 570 coastal cities – including New York, Mumbai and Jakarta – could face a sea-level rise of at least 50cm by 2050, threatening more than 800 million people with flooding, disease and damage to property or industries such as tourism.

And cities such as Delhi and Dubai may see extreme temperatures. Around 200 million city-dwellers in over 350 cities already have summer temperatures exceeding 35°C and 1.6 billion could be exposed regularly to extremely high temperatures by 2050.

Meanwhile, rapid urbanisation in the emerging world is leading to sprawling cities without the infrastructure to meet water demand.

Cities need to react. Mitigation involves action to reduce emissions but, if it cannot halt the impact of climate change, adapting to a warming world is necessary.

The more the climate changes, the more we are likely to adapt. At present 95 per cent of global funding on climate action goes on mitigation with a focus on decarbonising global energy and industrial sectors. But adaptation can focus on infrastructure resilience, water and food security, prevention of weather-related economic losses, or protecting lives.

More than 20 per cent of cities’ CO2 emissions come from transport. People can be encouraged to walk or cycle but existing forms of transport need to be electrified. Many cities have designated emissions charging zones and provide charging points, free parking or other benefits for electric vehicles.

During the COP26 climate conference, world leaders were asked to ensure that “everyone living in urban areas has safe, frequent, affordable and accessible public transport within a 10-minute walk from their home”. But the cost – USD200 billion-plus every year for a decade – is 0.2 per cent of global GDP COVID-19 reduced public-transport use, damaging operators’ finances.

Much of this funding will come from national governments, but private-public partnerships and capital markets will be involved, with a potential role for green bonds.

Meanwhile, buildings need to be greener and smarter. Offices and shopping malls can use sensor-based technologies for gates, escalators, lifts or water usage, and install energy-efficient cooling and heating. Public buildings and residential properties can be made smart too, but behavioural changes are also important.

Greater use of renewable energy is essential too, but ‘circular cities’ are gaining traction – communities that re-use, repurpose and recycle their waste with value retention.

There is likely to be much more urban investment as cities compete for workers and residents. But that competition could encourage even more investment.

First published 1st December 2021.
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