Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Climate projections predict both global warming and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events, such as sea level rise, intense rains, hurricanes, floods, heat waves, desertification, forest fires in the vicinity of cities, etc. Each of these events will have an impact on cities, and require different adaptation strategies. So what can we do to prepare our cities for climate change effects?
TLDR: Climate change is already impacting our cities and our lives. We need to think of the city of tomorrow as more resilient and sustainable. For this to happen, everyone must be involved in a systemic change in the way we design and build a green city.
Climate change was yesterday
Beyond theoretical knowledge and climate studies, the worrying component of climate change is first and foremost the one we feel, i.e. the impacts on climatic events. However, the climate has not waited for us to study it before beginning its transformations.
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, the observed global average temperature from 2015 to 2019 has increased by 1.1°C compared to the pre-industrial period, and by 0.2°C compared to the period from 2011 to 2015. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than any previous decade since climate records began in 1850. This warming has been accompanied by several effects around the globe.
These already observed effects of climate change are affecting all regions of the world, and cities are not spared. On the contrary, as they are often densely populated and highly urbanized areas, cities face additional risks compared to rural areas. Let us take a closer look at the risks.
Identify the risks involved
Climate change affects cities just as much as rural areas, and its effects involve an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events : sea level rise, intense rains, hurricanes, floods, heat waves, desertification, forest fires in the vicinity of cities, etc. Each of these events has great impacts on our lives, and on our cities.
The first step for the city is to identify the specific risks it faces. If the city is coastal, it is necessary to identify climatic risks such as storms and floods. In mountainous areas, the intensity of storms may increase. In a dry region, fires and desertification are likely. In short, an expert risk analysis is necessary. And as a citizen, you may have access to detailed studies on the subject on the internet or from your local government.
Beyond the identification of climatic risks, the city must ask itself the question of the induced effects of these disasters. Indeed, a storm causes material damage which can have a snowball effect on food supply, or transports. A heat wave can change energy consumption habits and lead to over-consumption of energy. Each risk must therefore be studied to identify the impacts on the city. Among the foreseeable impacts are, for example:
First of all, climate-related disasters put our lives at great risk;
Cities also face potential power outages;
Infrastructure may be affected (asphalt melting, rail tracks expanding...);
Shortages are likely (food, medicine, fresh water...);
Economic impacts are longer lasting (productivity stop, job loss...);
Adapt the city accordingly
Once the risks and impacts have been identified, it is time to adapt the city to protect its inhabitants and infrastructures. This requires bringing together many actors and including citizens in the process. By together to draw up an action plan, a vision and an adaptation path, the first step of coping with climate change is made.
For each risk, solutions exist, more or less technological, and more or less difficult to implement. Here are some examples of adaptation responding to frequent risks.
Heat waves: Green infrastructure, including improved vegetation and green building investments for natural cooling.
Heavy precipitation events: Development and enforcement of a sound land use plan.
Rising sea level: Relocation of facilities out of flood-prone areas.
Droughts: Long-term demand management and water use efficiency programs. Development of city-level food storage infrastructure.
Hurricanes: Sea walls or other structural investments to protect against coastal flooding
Have a plan for everything
Preparing for climate change, and better designing cities to make them more resilient to natural disasters is an important step in mitigating climate risks. However, the effects of climate change will continue to impact us, to a greater or lesser extent.
For this reason, preparing for climate change also means accepting risks and knowing how to respond to them. That is why it is important to be organised and have a plan to respond to any disaster or extreme climate event. Whether it is a safety plan in case of large scale flooding, a response plan to dispatch help after a hurricane, or mobilizing the citizens during a prolonged drought. In all these cases, and many others, it is necessary to know how to bring aid to the affected populations, rebuild what has been lost, while still respecting the environment and constantly improve so that future disasters have less impact on our cities and societies.
Transition to sustainability as well
Preparing cities for the effects of climate change must be done in parallel with the sustainable transition of urban environments. Indeed, cities are responsible for nearly 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consume 2/3 of the world's energy. Urban planning, housing and transport are the most energy-intensive sectors.
It is therefore not surprising that urban territories are at the heart of climate change issues, and many municipalities have understood this. There is an urgent need to promote the development of low-carbon cities, which are committed to a model that is more respectful of our environment and are trying to cope with climate change.
To become sustainable, cities must build:
strategies for saving natural resources (energy, water, space, materials) and managing their flows;
strategies aimed at social equity, which are translated into actions against exclusion, poverty, unemployment and also education, training, etc. ;
the application of the precautionary principle in order to avoid irreversible choices and local or planetary risks (greenhouse effect and biodiversity for example).