Adaptation to climate change faces major constraints in urban areas

Research published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) warns that it will be much harder to 'adapt' urban areas to protect them from new and increasing risks from climate change than is currently thought.

News, 13 November 2007

The report, whose authors include three contributors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, urges governments and international agencies to take adaptation in urban areas much more seriously.

It says that if action is taken now, there are large cumulative benefits and large cost savings, including avoidance of premature death, injury and property loss.

As climate change intensifies, urban centres will face growing risks from storms, floods, heat waves and water shortages. Most of the nations and cities most at risk are the poorest nations and cities that have contributed least to the problem.

"Millions of people live in cities that lack adequate protective infrastructure such as storm drains and where local governments lack the capacity to adapt," says David Satterthwaite of IIED. "The international agencies concerned with climate change do not understand the extent of these constraints."

"It is hopelessly inappropriate to take methods developed in high income countries and apply them in low and middle income nations," says Satterthwaite. "You cannot estimate the cost of 'adapting' infrastructure to climate change if there is no infrastructure there."

This report was prepared by five authors – three climate change specialists (Saleemul Huq, Hannah Reid, both of IIED, and Patricia Romero Lankao, of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research), one specialist in disaster preparedness (Mark Pelling of King's College London) and one urban planner (David Satterthwaite, IIED).

The death toll and other costs from disasters have grown rapidly over the past few decades, and 95 per cent of all deaths from disasters over the past 25 years have been in low- and middle-income nations — and very few businesses or households in these nations have insurance to help them recover.

No one knows precisely what contribution global warming has made to this rapid growth — but as Mark Pelling notes: "Almost all the growth in hazards since 1950 has been in the storms, floods and droughts whose frequency or intensity climate change is likely to increase, rather than earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or other disasters not related to extreme weather events. 2007 has already been marked as amongst the worst years on record for extreme weather disasters."

Saleemul Huq adds that: "The earlier action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to begin reducing vulnerability to the many impacts of climate change, the lower the costs. Adapting to climate change now need not draw resources from other pressing tasks."

City governments faced with urban poverty and weak infrastructure may find it difficult to take action on climate threats seen as uncertain and in the future. But there are three good reasons for taking action now:

  • Modest adjustments to investment that prioritise low-carbon technologies can, over time, produce much lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, even in cities with booming economies. The concentration of people and production in cities facilitates many investments and actions that keep down energy requirements for buildings, transport systems and enterprises, and support waste reduction.
  • Much of what needs to be done to reduce risks from climate change also reduces other risks; for instance, better drainage systems also protect health and reduce risks of flooding and waterlogging and good health care systems can also support disaster preparedness and rapid post-disaster response.
  • Much adaptation does not require additional government expenditure but is achieved by changing regulatory frameworks that influence individual, household, community, company and corporate investments — for instance adjustments to building regulations, land use plans, land subdivision regulations, pollution control and waste management.

"Investments to counter climate change and protect cities from its effects must work with low-income groups," says Satterthwaite. "This means fully involving them in plans to reduce flooding and other risks. Low-income groups may be prepared to move from hazardous sites, but only if they are involved in decisions about where to move and how the move is organised."

"But there are often good possibilities for reducing risks in the sites and informal settlements they already live in – through better infrastructure and housing improvements," adds Satterthwaite. "Getting governments to work with such groups usually means a fundamental change in government practice."

These adjustments will not be easy since most will face opposition from powerful vested interests. Furthermore, as Hannah Reid notes, "too many policy-makers at national and city levels see climate change as an environmental issue or a global issue that is not their concern. Too many climate change specialists have little knowledge of development, as their approach focuses on reducing greenhouse emissions or generating funding 'for adaptation' with little understanding of what constrains effective local adaptation and how this can be addressed."

There is a profound unfairness globally in who generates climate change and who is at risk. As Patricia Romero Lankao notes: "Tens of millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean have homes and livelihoods at risk from sea-level rise and storms, yet they have made very little contribution to greenhouse gas emissions."