How cities from Bristol to Dakar are weathering a warming planet

Written by on May 18, 2021


In January, Istanbul had just 45 days’ worth of water left following the most severe drought in a decade. Flash floods struck the city of Luanda in Angola last month, leaving 24 dead and displacing 11,000. Unprecedented storms caused power outages for millions of Texans this February, leading to over 150 deaths. For cities around the world, climate impacts are no longer a distant threat, but a daily reality.

Cities contribute up to 70% of global emissions, and new CDP data shows that 93% of disclosing cities are facing significant climate hazards, putting their populations at risk. Cities have a dual role to play in rapidly cutting emissions and building resilience against climate threats. Cities must also address social inequality and protect vulnerable communities from potentially devastating climate impacts.

These issues can’t be tackled separately: we need a holistic and urgent response. So how are cities responding to this challenge of a lifetime?

Cities are cutting emissions, but we need more to follow suit

Released today, new data from CDP tracking a decade of climate action from over 800 cities shows growing momentum. In 2020, despite the pressures of COVID-19, 148 cities reported they had set emissions reduction targets aligned with a 1.5C warming limit. Some targets are even more ambitious than national commitments, like Santa Fe County in the US, Penampang in Malaysia and Greater Manchester in the UK.

A growing number of cities are pledging to reduce their emissions. But as we approach 2030, we need to ramp up that action to keep global warming to 1.5C and reduce the impacts of climate hazards like flooding, extreme heat and storms. If we don’t go far enough, the consequences of that inaction will fall on the most vulnerable in society.

Vulnerable populations will be hit hardest 

Despite nine in 10 cities saying they face significant climate hazards, CDP research has found that 43% of cities do not have climate adaptation plans to effectively protect their populations and infrastructure from risks.

In fact, 74% of cities say climate change is ramping up the risks to already vulnerable populations, like low-income households, those living in insecure housing, indigenous communities and the elderly.

In the UK, Bristol’s ‘One City’ climate plan acknowledges that vulnerable communities bear the brunt of flood impacts, with 30% of children in Bristol’s flood-prone Lawrence Hill area living below the poverty line. Moving forward, it is imperative that city climate action also addresses social inequality to ensure fair and equitable protection from climate threats.

To deliver, cities must develop climate risk and vulnerability assessments that identify people, infrastructure and resources at risk from the climate crisis.

CDP research shows cities with these assessments are nearly three times as likely to report long-term hazards than cities without, and report almost six times as many adaptation actions. Yet our analysis also shows that 41% of cities have not carried out these vital assessments.

Dual solutions: social equality and environmental resilience  

Around the world, we are seeing innovative approaches to sustainable development that enable cities to address social inequalities and climate risks.

In Dakar, Senegal, the invasive plant typha domingensis is being used as a natural insulation material to improve energy efficiency and temperature regulation in its buildings. This protects against extreme heat but will also improve living conditions for lower-income households in warmer climates. This bio-climatic technology is in place at the Hospital of Geriatrics in Ouakam, to ensure its elderly patients are treated in a comfortable, temperate environment.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is building the infrastructure to become a ‘climate haven’, a destination for mass climate migration. Studies suggest that one in 12 citizens in the American South will move in the next 45 years because of climate threats. As it reinforces its infrastructure to shelter these migrants, Cincinnati’s Urban Heat Island Assessment will test methods of cooling for vulnerable citizens like tree canopy coverage, cooling centers in high-density areas and regreening.

As we recover from COVID-19, this is our chance to get it right

We are in the second year of the decade of climate action, and climate science tells us we must reduce global emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This is crucial if we are to build a resilient planet for all.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic began as a public health crisis, and has developed into a social and economic crisis, highlighting pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. This has made it clear that we can’t go back to business as usual – we need to build back better.

We see that cities have the appetite to drive this forward – the disclosure and actions of these 812 cities is testament to that. But with one in four citing budgetary barriers to action, they need the support of national governments to keep populations safe.

With COVID-19 stimulus packages totaling $12 trillion, national governments must ensure a green and just recovery that tackles these crises jointly – and support essential climate action to create safe, resilient cities.

With the clock ticking down, the time for decisive action is now.

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