The role of cities in the fight against climate change

Large scale disaster events have increased during the last two decades, and this upsurge can be put down to climate change. As 70 per cent of the world population lives in cities, improving urban resilience against disasters is paramount, and to do this effectively you need to involve the communities most affected say Professor Jon Coaffee, Politics and International Studies and Academic lead for the Global Research Priority in Sustainable Cities, University of Warwick.

In their 2020 report Human Costs of Disasters, reflecting on the upsurge in disaster events in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) noted 7,348 disasters that claimed approximately 1.25 million lives and affected a total of over four billion people, often on more than one occasion. Combined such events were calculated to have cost $2.97trn.

Many of these disaster events were climate-related, reflecting long-held assumptions about the destructive power of climate change. 

Indeed, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of August 2021 once again confirmed the pressing need for action on climate resilience, and in particular the role of cities in such endeavours. They noted that cities intensify human-induced warming locally and that will increase the severity of heatwaves and the intensity of rainfalls and resulting runoff, with coastal cities becoming especially exposed to more frequent extreme weather events.

Data, community and urgent action from government 

The need to take effective and coordinated international actions against the perils of climate change should come as no surprise to anyone. In 2015 a series of UN-backed development agenda were signed off by the vast majority of World’s nations that collectively sort to intensify action against disasters and especially those linked to climate:

  • First, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which was adopted by UN Member States in March 2015 at World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan. 
  • Second, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), released in September 2015, where SDG 11 - the Urban SDG – was focused upon “Making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.
  • Third, the Conference of Parties (COP) signed up to the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015 (COP21), with the aim of achieving a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change adaptation. 

To date, and entering COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, many of these commitments remain unfulfilled.

A key assumption underpinning these international agreements was the prominent role conferred to local data collection and community resilience and the urgent need for city governments to adopt integrated policies and plans towards resilience to disasters. 

There is a need to foster collaboration and partnership across mechanisms and institutions and enhance the implementation of resilience policies and practices. 

The recent COVID-19 global pandemic has reminded us that the uncertainty of contemporary urban life dictates the adoption of flexible and adaptive governance structures to create the post-pandemic city of the future, based upon the foundations of sustainability and resilience.

Overcoming barriers to action

Transformations towards sustainability or resilience are often hindered by outdated or maladaptive governance processes that are not able to respond effectively to the risks, crises and uncertainty that increasingly envelop urban life. This often results in a misalignment between views and actions of those charged with managing risk and disasters and those communities most effected by them. 

As they are currently arranged, many resilience policies at the municipal level, but also global frameworks such as the SDGs and their accompanying targets, usually adopt framings of risk which are not sensitive to the local reality of urban neighbourhoods and thus are not able to capture highly localised aspects of such neighbourhoods that are crucial for effective reduction of the economic and human costs of natural hazards.

By encouraging citizens and communities to engage with risk management in their own locality and collect and monitor useful data, it is possible to overcome the differences between professional and community-based approaches to managing risk and further enhance the understanding of risks, vulnerabilities and local capabilities in vulnerable urban areas.

Practically this requires the integration of citizen-generated data practices with other conventional data sources in ways that enable pathways for transition to sustainable development whilst also supporting more inclusive policy-making on how best to manage a range of environmental risks.