Cities at the forefront of climate innovation

Throughout history, great risk has often led to great innovation and human beings are well versed in responding to imminent and visible threats. From the earliest human existence, societies have been evolving their behaviours in response to unstable environments. In fact, the defence of an organism against the risks that are part of the uncertainty of existence is viewed as the beginning of risk management.

The human race, or at the very least large swathes of humanity, was almost wiped out a few times by apocalyptic threats ranging from cataclysmic super-volcanic eruptions like the one that occurred in Toba, modern-day Indonesia, 70 000 years ago; the Pleistocene Epoch, the most recent Ice Age that began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 11 700 years ago; a 200-year mega-drought that occurred around 4 200 years ago which wiped out several ancient civilisations in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, the Yangtze River Valley and ancient Egypt; and, more recently, widespread pandemics such as the Black Death and the Spanish flu both of which appeared in Europe in 1347 and in 1918 respectively. The human race survived these threats through global migration, better shelter and clothing, the development of agriculture, as well as medical breakthroughs.

Climate change shaping the modern era: a slow-moving global threat

The growing global risk of climate change could be the greatest threat of modern times and there are signs the world could be reaching a critical point of no return. Climate protests have been escalating worldwide with the recent Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking part of London for a week, the school strike for climate gaining momentum in cities worldwide, or the sudden rise to prominence of a teenage climate change activist and recent Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Greta Thunberg. The results of climate inaction are becoming increasingly clear. Aon highlights the long-term implications to climate risk after reporting two of the costliest back-to-back years on record for weather disasters, with total losses of US$653 billion, in its Weather, Climate & Catastrophe Insight: 2018 Annual Report.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks Report for 2019 echoed the sentiment in that environmental risks accounted for five of the top 10 global risks by likelihood and accounted for five of the top 10 global risks by impact. These climate change-related risks included extreme weather, environmental policy failure leading to the failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity loss, and natural and man-made environmental disasters. The environmental risk category has been becoming increasingly prominent since risks related to it started appearing in the top five in 2011. The latest report put it aptly, stating that “of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe”.

The resurgent power of cities in the climate change fight

Success in the fight against climate change requires a co-ordinated approach and action at the global, regional, national and local levels. National governments and international organisations and agreements traditionally received most of the attention in the climate debate. Cities had often been left out of the conversation altogether but have recently become crucial actors on the climate innovation frontline to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This is a welcome addition considering urban areas are now home to three-quarters of the people in developed countries and more than half globally.

It is well documented that city states are rising again, having predated the nation state which rose to prominence only in the late 18th century. Rome and Alexandria are older than Italy and Egypt respectively. It is at this level where one of the world’s greatest challenges in climate change is being met, ushering in a new conversation about the power of cities to reshape the future once more by driving clean tech innovation. It should not be forgotten that even though cities are home to 85% of the global economy, they are also a key contributor to climate change, consuming two-thirds of the world’s energy with estimates suggesting their activities are responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions.

According to the World Economic Forum, over 90% of all urban areas are coastal and these and other rapidly growing cities are severely exposed to the consequences of climate change, such as rising sea levels, floods, droughts, storms and the spread of tropical diseases. Two-thirds of the global population is expected to live in cities by 2050 and already an estimated 800 million people live in more than 570 coastal cities vulnerable to a sea-level rise of 0.5m by 2050. Increased urbanisation concentrates the physical damage and financial disruption which climate change can do to people and property, with costly impacts on cities’ basic services, infrastructure, housing, human livelihoods and health.

According to Verisk Maplecroft, 84% of the world’s fastest-growing cities face ‘extreme’ climate change risks as they grapple with rapid growth, rising temperatures and increasingly severe weather events. Over 95% of the cities they consider ‘extreme risk’ are in Africa and Asia, which means the world’s poorest countries are expected to pay the highest price of climate change. These cities have extremely vulnerable populations due to inadequate healthcare services and disaster mitigation systems. We only need to look at the unprecedented devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Idai which recently struck central Mozambique, eastern Zimbabwe and southern Malawi. The city of Beira was left reeling with thousands of people displaced, massive infrastructure damage and the outbreak of communicable diseases. It took a significant amount of time for aid to reach communities that were struggling with limited resources. On the other side of the spectrum, 86% of the cities Verisk Maplecroft considers ‘low risk’ are located in Europe and the Americas. The majority of these cities are also far better equipped to manage climate change risks.

A united front

Cities round the world are taking a stand regardless of national agendas. This was demonstrated when more than 380 US cities immediately responded to the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement by vowing to do their part to meet the targets. Cities are also where the most inspiring and innovative experiments are taking place. Numerous networks of city-based initiatives are already underway in the fight against climate change such as the Smart Cities Council and the C-40. The Smart Cities Council works globally to make cities more liveable, workable and sustainable. The C-40 Cities Climate Leadership Group connects just over 90 megacities across the world, taking bold climate action, leading the way towards a healthier and more sustainable future. Most leading cities have committed to Deadline 2020 to urgently pursue high ambition climate action demonstrating how they can deliver on the Paris Agreement.

Getting the job done

Numerous success stories are being reported daily where cities are taking transformational actions to reduce transportation emissions, limit industrial emissions, improve building energy efficiency, make use of renewable energy sources, and change consumption patterns. In fact, these cities have already taken more than 10 000 individual actions such as adding bus rapid transit in Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, Curitiba and Mexico City; removing 70 000 cars a day from the roads in central London; dramatically boosting solar power in Austin, Texas; introducing a new light-rail network in Addis Ababa; and Auckland and Phoenix’s success in nearly cutting in half the amount of waste going to landfills. San Francisco and Copenhagen plan to be carbon neutral in the next few years meaning they will produce no more carbon emissions than they can offset elsewhere, a quarter of a century ahead of targets set out by the Paris Agreement.

New and unconventional ideas are also being concocted at a rapid pace in less developed cities. Thought provoking examples include a zero-emission bus network in the Pakistan port city of Karachi powered by methane from cow dung; a billion cockroaches eating their way through 50 tonnes of food waste every day at a plant in Jinan, China; and in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, you can buy your ticket for the bus or metro with a bag of recycling plastic.

Resilient cities – those with the ability to avoid, withstand and recover from traumatic events – stand out from the crowd now more than ever. Resilient cities are strengthening their ability to deal with the impact of climate change by protecting their residents and economies. Stormwater systems have been upgraded in many cities to cope with more extreme flooding events; Miami is coping with rising seas through pumps and elevated streets; and Chicago, which is home to the world’s largest vertical farm, is tackling heatwaves by installing ‘green roofs’. Highlighting the importance of city-level resilience and an increase in resilience spending, the role of the city’s chief resilience officer (CRO) which is a top-level adviser who reports directly to the city mayor, has shot to prominence in recent times. ABI Research predicts city governments worldwide will increase spending on urban resilience projects from US$97 billion in 2019 to US$335 billion in 2024.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, the transformative change of cities into greener and cleaner places to live will not happen overnight. The action cities take on climate will make them more competitive considering an increase in a city’s resilience through its willingness to embrace climate innovation culture is brandable. This action will make them more attractive places to live and do business, create jobs, cut energy bills, improve health and will contribute to the joint effort of cities round the world to make a major dent in the global fight against climate change.

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