Cities are on the frontline of the climate crisis. Although cities cover less than 2% of the earth’s surface, they account for roughly 76% of global CO2 emissions – this means they have an important role to play in limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
A new report aimed at translating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on 1.5 for city practitioners demonstrates this.
Here are five takeaways from the report:
1. All cities are at risk.
If we exceed the 1.5°C warming limit, we will enter an uncertain world with a higher likelihood of extreme weather, droughts, human illness and the degradation of natural systems. Social and economic systems in cities will face increasing pressure, 55% of the world’s population already resides in cities, and this is expected to grow to 68% by 2050. Climate change impacts will also create an estimated 140 million ‘climate migrants’ by 2050, who are forced out of their homes due to rising sea levels, crop failure, and water scarcity.
Surpassing the 1.5°C warming threshold will dramatically increase deaths and illnesses from heat waves, floods, extreme weather, vector borne diseases and droughts (populations facing water scarcity will double).
While all cities are at risk—vulnerable populations, such as those living in informal settlements, will be impacted the most. In the decade leading up to 2014, 89% of storm-related fatalities were in lower-income countries.
Cities are already experiencing issues that will be exacerbated by climate change. Indonesia is planning to move its capital city from Jakarta to Borneo, largely due to the multitude of environmental issues plaguing the city. Jakarta experiences rampant flooding and is currently one of the fastest sinking cities on earth.
2. Cities must adapt and diversify.
Urban practitioners and policymakers must act urgently to protect their citizens from the ongoing climate crisis.
Cities must both improve their pre-existing infrastructure and construct future-proof infrastructure to deal with climate change impacts and protect their citizens and the business community.
The city of Sao Paulo is collaborating with companies to help improve its water infrastructure to strengthen climate resilience. Sabesp, one of the biggest water companies in the country partnered with the city to implement a $600 million program that aims to improve sewage networks around favelas, or slums, and developments across the city in order to combat the health issues related to poor sanitation that will be intensified by climate change.
Investing in inclusive climate insurance is a concrete action that a city can take to shield the impacts of extreme weather events on local communities and businesses.
Cities and peri-urban areas will also have to adapt infrastructure, utilizing carbon dioxide sequestration to become carbon sinks. Investing in green infrastructure by planting more urban forests and developing dedicated green areas in residential and commercial areas will absorb CO2, provide flood defense, mitigate against the heat island effect and have added social benefits.
In 2010, the City of Toronto enacted a green roof policy which required all new commercial, residential and institutional developments to install green roofs – vegetated rooftops used to absorb heat, rainwater and CO2. As a result, 11 million liters of storm water was subsequently absorbed and diverted from sewers annually, mitigating flood risks and saving the city over $100,000 per year.
Green infrastructure can do more than planting. In Singapore, a city-state which experiences heavy annual rainfall, rainwater is recycled through runoff capture systems built into infrastructure across the city. Up to 33% of all water used in its airport originates from stored rainwater. The storing and recycling of rainwater will also be piloted at two housing estates, in order to reduce potable water demand.
3. Cities must promote technological innovations, facilitate climate friendly lifestyle changes and embrace alternative employment.
Cities can utilize existing and developing innovations such as smart-grid technologies and renewables to diversify and shift away from carbon and energy intensive systems.
According to the Summary for Urban Policymakers, in order to stay on the 1.5°C pathway, emissions from buildings need to drop 90% by 2050 and at least 5% of existing buildings need to undergo energy retrofits each year.
There also must be a 30% reduction in energy use by the transport sector and an 85% increase in renewable energy usage by 2050. Our research has found that over 100 cities around the world are taking action and are sourcing more than 70% of their electricity from renewable sources including solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower.
Shenzen, a bustling Chinese megacity, has transformed their entire bus fleet from diesel powered to electric. The city estimates that this has reduced annual CO2 emissions by 440,000 tonnes now that over 16,000 buses are now fully electric. All 22,000 taxis will soon make the shift to electric.
Dietary shifts will play a massive role in reducing global emissions. A recent report by C40, Arup and the University of Leeds found that consumption-based emissions from 100 cities account for 10% of global GHG emissions and that reducing meat and dairy intake will have dual benefits for reducing emissions and improving human health.
A shift into the low carbon economy will be necessary. According to the International Labour Organization, 1.2 billion jobs depend directly on ecosystem services and are under threat from climate change – 72 million full-time jobs are at risk by 2030 due to impacts from heat stress alone. Shifting into the low carbon economy will also create jobs. A multi-authored report by representatives from Brookings, the Overseas Development Institute, the World Resources Institute and others has claimed that shifting to a new climate economy could create 65 million ‘low carbon jobs’ by 2030 – in the agricultural, renewables, tech and waste sector.
4. We are running out of time.
At the present rate of warming, we will likely reach a 1.5°C warmer world around 2040. If we continue on that path we will likely see a 3°C warmer world by 2100. The consequences of just a 0.5°C temperature rise is immense. Four hundred and fifty million more people will be exposed to climate risks if warming hits 2 degrees Celsius compared to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The average drought length jumps from 2 months in a 1.5°C warmer world to 10 months in a 3.0°C warmer world.
Business as usual warming could also lead to a 2 meter rise in sea level by 2100, which would displace more than 187 million people – major coastal cities such as Dhaka, New York, Venice and Manila will be affected.
Urgent action is needed. If we reduce global carbon dioxide emissions to reach net zero in the next thirty years, we will have a one-in-two chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. For a two-in-three chance, we’ll have to reach net zero emissions in twenty years. Any scenario that limits global warming will require net-zero global CO2 emissions.
The scale of the global transformation needed for a net-zero carbon economy is unparalleled and will require action from national and sub-national levels.
5. We must collaborate and act.
Cities, along with countries, regions, and businesses must align policies and collaborate to achieve success. In order to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, a multi-sectoral and multi-level approach is needed.
Effective governance frameworks will be crucial. Local, regional and national governments must align and support each other. Everyone will have a role to play. From individuals, academics, NGOs, governments, businesses and civil society.
A great example of this is The London Business Climate Leaders. The LBCL is an initiative that involves 11 climate leading businesses, the Mayor of London, CDP and other stakeholders that aims to make London a zero-carbon city by 2050 and to become a blueprint of city-business collaboration. The companies, who all together employ over than 165,000 people in London, will work directly with the Mayor on implementing projects that will cut pollution and emissions. The companies have committed to purchasing 100% renewable electricity for their offices in London, reduce waste by 50%, and achieve zero carbon buildings by 2050.
America’s Pledge, an initiative launched by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry brown, unites cities, states, and businesses in the United States who are still committed to the Paris agreement, despite the federal administration’s highly publicized notice to withdraw in 2017.
The first step that cities can take towards fostering transparency and collaboration is to disclose their environmental data. Cities that disclose will be able to measure their successes, benchmark initiatives against other cities, and identify key areas in need for improvement. The CDP-ICLEI Unified Reporting System is the most comprehensive and internationally recognized collection of self-reported environmental data worldwide. This data can be used to drive sustainable transition, as demonstrated by the actions that cities have already taken, which is why access is completely free and open to all.