- Cities across the world are expanding and with this comes the need for more energy consumption, informal settlements, and increased climate vulnerabilities.
- At the recent climate conference COP26 in Glasgow, the last day of the two-week conference was dedicated to Cities and Built Environments, where discussions about urban resilience dominated the conversations.
- The climate challenges faced by the Global South cities are different from the Global North. The Global South cities need better access to finance, improved coordination among different stakeholders and enhanced data tracking abilities.
- Indian cities can align with the state and national climate action plans and ensure inclusivity at the policy and the process levels to become climate resilient.
Indian cities have faced many environmental challenges this year, including extreme weather events. The recent rains in Chennai, have demonstrated that cities need to invest more time and money to plan the infrastructure and avoid further disasters. The IPCC AR6 report, released in August this year, states that aspects of climate change including Urban Heat Islands, flooding from precipitation and sea level rise in coastal areas are set to increase in cities.
While cities and their infrastructure are damaged by climate events, cities are also responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions with transport and buildings being major sources of pollution. With about 68% of the world’s population set to live in urban areas by 2050, and six out of every 10 people set to live in cities by 2030, there is a growing consensus that cities must prepare for the increasing demand for energy and water, increased pollution and emissions.
As the impact of cities on the environment – and vice versa – becomes a growing concern, there is greater attention, globally, on how to manage it. At the recent climate conference COP26 in Glasgow, the last day of the two-week conference was dedicated to Cities and Built Environments, where discussions about urban resilience dominated the conversations. Any urban system’s demonstrable capacity to preserve continuity through all shocks and stressors while positively adapting and reforming toward sustainability, is defined as urban resilience by the United Nations.
Given that nearly 44% of India’s rapidly growing carbon emissions have urban origins, emanating from transport, industry, buildings, and waste, the focus on urban environments and city-based climate action plans, becomes significant for India as well.
Climate resilience for cities with different vulnerabilities
Cities and regions across the globe face a diverse variety of climate hazards, and therefore require a diverse set of responses. “We need innovative climate solutions that are context and place-specific. For these innovative solutions to be successful and brought to scale there needs to be an enabling ecosystem in place,” says Dr. Tom Mitchell, Chief Strategy Officer, EIT Climate-KIC, an organisation that identifies and supports innovation that helps in mitigating and adapting to climate events. EIT Climate-KIC has over a decade of experience in creating dedicated climate ‘innovation clusters’ in city-regions across advanced and emerging economies.
They have been working with cities like Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Kraków, Leuven, Madrid, Milan and Vienna in their Healthy, Clean Cities Deep Demonstration, creating portfolios of joined-up innovations for climate change mitigation and adaptation across all city systems – from mobility to waste, from energy to health, and the built environment.
“We’ve found that there are certain qualities needed to build a successful ecosystem – this includes a high level of political support from the city or regional governments, a supply of talent through strong education systems, a set of local organisations active on climate as well as access to investment,” adds Mitchell talking to Mongabay-India.
With an enabling support system for climate innovations, each city or region can bring something new and distinctive, whether solutions for living in deserts, and semi-arid zone, flood conditions, coastal zones, mountains, or around parts of the system like finance and insurance, buildings technologies, data, and climate services, states Mitchell.
The tale of two cities: Challenges for the Global South
The Scottish city of Glasgow is working on large-scale projects like Clyde Rebuilt that aims to shift the focus from stand-alone projects like concrete flood walls to more systemic solutions that might combine river restoration with wetland creation, flood forecasting and warning systems, and new insurance mechanisms. In another project, Start Park, led by citizens from Florence, Italy, which won ‘Most Advanced Idea’ at the global EIT Climate-KIC Climathon Awards last year, developed a prototype for an urban green area whose infrastructure and services are dedicated to water reuse and drainage, supplemented by activities to raise climate awareness in the local community.
While Global North cities are working on urban climate resilience for upcoming climate events, future-proofing Global South cities that are already facing the impacts of climate change is challenging. The bigger challenge is collaborating between the cities of Global South.
Chirag Gajjar, Head Subnational Climate Action, WRI India, points out some barriers for the Global South, in conversation with Mongabay-India, “Global South needs more data and data tracking abilities and community engagement. Also, some cities are dedicated to climate action, but the staff are unable to articulate a compelling case for city-specific projects. They need dedicated staff to execute ideas.”
He also spotlights the importance of coordination among different departments and stakeholders, with an example of how a large electric mobility infrastructure would need not just the public transport department’s efforts but the collaboration of different government and private organisations. “Importantly, getting the funds for these projects is competitive. Big cities like Mumbai, Chennai or Delhi can access funds but smaller cities don’t have the capacity to access them,” adds Gajjar.
Removing informalities to improve resilience
One of the most important issues to highlight in the discourse of urban climate resilience, which is also relevant to India, is urban informality. Climate migration (a situation in which migration occurs due to alterations in the natural environment owing to climate reasons) forces people to move to cities and settle in informal settlements. With the rapid growth of informal settlements, that typically have low-quality housing, the residents of such settlements are exposed to more climate vulnerabilities.
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor, Freetown, Sierra Leone, spoke at COP26 in the session ‘Urban informality and inequality – a call for global climate justice’, saying, “Cities from the Global South don’t get featured in important climate conversations. Informal settlements are both victims and contributors of climate change. If one or two harvests fail due to unpredictable monsoons, people are forced to migrate to cities and settle in informal areas. Growth of such informal settlements gives rise to increased heat, lack of sanitation and therefore poor health.”
While Aki-Sawyerr’s team is working to improve sanitation in informal settlements in Freetown, also generating jobs, she insists that this is not a long-term solution. “The only right answer is removing the informality – not taking the people out of the slum but taking the slum out of the people. Moving with the community to uplift their lives and making it collaborative is the way forward.”
Cable cars that connect the people in the hills to people in the city centre, waste collection and organic waste composting that generates employment while improving sanitation, and tree planting initiatives that track each tree planted, while again providing volunteering and job opportunities are some of the initiatives in progress at Freetown, to making it a climate-resilient city and offer examples to emulate in other cities of the Global South.
Indian cities can align with state and national climate action plans
While national targets are the major focus at climate conferences like COP, experts suggest that each country pays more attention to its expanding cities. “The advantage that Indian cities have is that they don’t have to start from scratch. They can align their city-based plans to the state-action plans and national action plans for climate change,” notes Gajjar.
Talking to Mongabay-India, he highlights the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan as a successful project that took collaboration among different stakeholders seriously. “The specifically tailored heat action plan involved scientists, early warning system engineers, telephone operators, media and the masses to effectively tackle human loss during heat waves,” he states, adding that inclusivity at both process and policy levels are necessary.
Knowledge sharing in urban climate resilience
Urban experts also advocate the need for knowledge sharing between different cities and countries when it comes to improving urban climate resilience. “For example, one country may have a robust physical infrastructure for avoiding floods and water-related hazards, while another may have strong earth observation tools that can help map climate risks, such as floods. Individually these solutions are useful in making communities more resilient, however the value is increased when you combine multiple solutions together,” concludes Mitchell.
Banner image: Traffic passing through a flooded road. Photo by Ronie/ Pixahive.