Urbanising the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Our bloggers look at how – over time – the IPCC has come to recognise the crucial role urban areas play in adaptation to climate change and its mitigation.

David Satterthwaite's picture David Dodman's picture
David Satterthwaite is a senior associate in IIED's Human Settlements group; David Dodman is general director of the Institute for Housing Studies
15 May 2023
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The transition to a predominantly urban world
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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is arguably the world’s most important scientific initiative – ever. We know about existential crises when applied to people or organisations, but now the term is being used for whole cities, countries – and even the planet. And the wheels are already in motion to drive us past the ‘safe’ global warming limit of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The IPCC is also the world’s most influential scientific body – bringing together everything we know about the climate emergency, and from which government policies should draw. Its influence goes far beyond the scientific community. Its reports get far more media coverage than those from other scientific networks.

Burning the midnight oil

Of course, it has its limitations. All its work is accountable to national governments who set checks on what it can say. It is not allowed to be ‘policy prescriptive’, only policy-relevant.  And the summary for policymakers it produces for each of its six assessment reports has to be approved unanimously by IPCC member governments.

We have both had experience of working through the night to get this approval – word by word. Of course, there are some member governments that play politics with this – demanding inappropriate changes, deletions and additions to the text as the price of their approval.

Initially, the IPCC assessments did not pay much attention to urban issues. In part because of the lack of relevant peer-reviewed articles (see the table below).

Coverage of urban issues in IPCC reports

IPCC reports Relevant chapters Comments
First Assessment Report (AR1, 1990) Working Group II, Chapter 5: Human settlement; the energy, transport and industrial sectors; human health; air quality and changes in UVB radiation Urban issues considered alongside a range of other priorities, but without extensive attention. Avoiding ‘city’ and ‘urban’ in chapter titles. Short and lacking city case studies, especially from the global South. Lacking knowledge base on costs of adaptation
Second Assessment Report (AR2, 1995) Working Group II, Chapter 12: Human settlements in a changing climate – impacts and adaptation As above
Third Assessment Report (AR3, 2001) Working Group II, Chapter 7: Human settlements, energy, and industry As above
Fourth Assessment Report (AR4, 2007) Working Group II, Chapter 7: Industry, settlement and society As above
Fifth Assessment Report (AR5, 2014) Working Group II, chapters on ‘human settlements, industry and infrastructure’; Chapter 8: Urban areas; Chapter 9: Rural areas; Chapter 10: key economic sectors and services Much larger and more diverse literature to draw on. Includes many more city case studies in the global South, leading to much longer and more detailed coverage. Clarity over the shift from resilience to transformative adaptation for cities. First major synthesis of information on emissions of greenhouse gases from urban areas and the potential for mitigation in cities.
Working Group III, Chapter 12: Human settlements, infrastructure and spatial planning As above
Special report (2012): Managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation Very relevant to urban areas, but no specific chapter or section
Special report (2018): Global warming of 1.5°C Section 3.4.8 Urban areas cross-chapter Box 13, cities and urban transformation
Sixth Assessment Report (AR6, 2023) Working Group II, Chapter 6: Cities, settlements and key infrastructure Growing body of evidence on downscaled climate change scenarios to support planning at the city scale reflected in Working Group I. Strong reflection of city impacts, priorities and potential in Synthesis Report including the Summary for Policymakers
Working Group III, Chapter 8: Urban systems and other settlements As above
Summaries for urban policymakers for each of AR6’s working groups and for the Special Report on global warming of 1.5°C IPCC authors leading these – each focusing on what urban policymakers should know, drawn from AR6 and special reports

All the reports listed above are available (open access).

A growing body of literature

This changed dramatically in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). There was by now a much larger literature on which to draw. So the coverage of climate change adaptation and mitigation in urban areas and systems could be much more detailed and comprehensive.

The IPCC secretariat generously allowed many more pages in the chapters on urban areas in AR5 to explore findings contained in this new body of literature. And the Rockefeller Foundation provided generous support for city case studies from the global South.

This need for greater attention to urban issues was also recognised elsewhere. Addressing the C40 World Mayors Summit in 2019, UN secretary general António Guterres said: “Cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost”.

But there was another factor. The secretariat recognised that much of the needed transformational change in cities and urban systems was the responsibility of local governments (that are not represented in the IPCC). How could this be addressed in IPCC assessments that can only draw on peer-reviewed journals?

Needed – fresh eyes and a fresh perspective

As part of IIED’s support for city innovation, David Satterthwaite had visited Durban in 2001 to meet Debra Roberts, head of the sustainable and resilient city initiatives unit in eThekwini municipality (Durban, South Africa). She was invited to write about the work of the unit and, with her colleagues, provide a series of papers on different aspects of climate change in Durban.

Meanwhile, the IPCC was planning its fifth assessment which included chapters on urban areas with authors drawn from nominations from national government. We were both privileged to be invited to be coordinating lead authors of chapters on urban areas: David Satterthwaite in AR5 (with Aromar Revi), and David Dodman in AR6 (with Bronwyn Hayward and Mark Pelling).

For the chapter on urban adaptation in AR5, we worked with a fantastic team (see below). But a serious weakness was our experience of one key issue – the functioning of urban governments.

Most of the team had worked with, but not in, governments. So Kris Ebi (working with the IPCC secretariat) approached the South African government to ask if Debra Roberts could be nominated. They agreed, and she became a lead author for this urban chapter and contributed the much-needed depth and detail in relation to climate change and urban governance.

There were some hurdles to be overcome. Many IPCC authors think that only ‘proper’ researchers with doctorates should be invited – fortunately Debra had a doctorate. Others feel that too little attention is given to urban environmental issues – they could be reassured by Dr Roberts being a specialist in biodiversity.

There was some opposition to this greater focus on urban areas within some national governments – witnessed by the fact that there is no ‘urban’ chapter in working group II for the first four assessments.

After Dr Roberts’ contribution to AR5, she was elected co-chair of working group II and supported IPCC authors developing summaries for urban policymakers on the three working groups’ reports on the physical science, adaptation and mitigation.

Specific climate impacts in cities

A summary for urban policymakers was also prepared for the IPCC’s special report on global warming of 1.5°C. This highlighted the significant and alarming consequences that climate change is expected to have on urban areas. It identified the need to go ‘beyond notions of formal government or political authority’ and to integrate ‘other actors, networks, informal institutions and communities’.

The growing body of scientific evidence on the interactions between the physical process of urbanisation and the physical impacts of climate change meant that AR6 working group I could focus on the specific climate impacts in cities – and how these interactions lead to higher temperatures and greater risks of flooding.

AR6 working group II positions cities and other urban areas as key geographical and institutional locations for addressing climate challenge in an integrated way. It has a cross-chapter box on cities and settlements by the sea – recognising the need to focus on different contexts and needs.

It was impossible to ignore the climate change impacts on the billion urban dwellers in informal settlements, and the potential for large-scale adaptation by working with residents to build resilience at local and city level.

Signposting climate resilient development

This is reflected in the approved summary for policymakers (PDF) in the final part of the AR6 synthesis report, and based on the three working group reports and special reports.  Here governments approved a text which brought together urban mitigation and adaptation within the framework of ‘climate-resilient development.’

Among the points highlighted were:

  • Urban systems are critical for achieving deep emissions reductions and advancing climate resilient development.
  • Urban transitions that offer benefits for mitigation, adaptation, human health and wellbeing, ecosystem services, and vulnerability reduction for low-income communities are fostered by inclusive long-term planning that takes an integrated approach to physical, natural and social infrastructure.
  • The key role for effective local, municipal, national and subnational institutions in building consensus for climate action among diverse interests
  • Consider climate change impacts and risks in the design and planning of settlements and infrastructure through compact urban form, co-location of jobs and housing; support for public transport, walking and cycling; the efficient design, construction, retrofit, and use of buildings; reducing and changing energy and material consumption, and
  • Green/natural and blue infrastructure supports carbon uptake and storage and either singly or when combined with grey infrastructure can reduce energy use and risk from extreme events such as heatwaves, flooding, heavy precipitation and droughts, while generating co-benefits for health, wellbeing and livelihoods.

Admittedly some of the language is pretty ‘clunky’ and some issues do not get the attention they deserve.

But imagine working on a text that had to be approved by 195 co-authors each representing their own government’s priorities. Then the enormity of what has been achieved becomes clear. So the half-asleep negotiations at 4am were worth it.


Authors and contributors to AR5’s chapter on urban adaptation and to the book, Cities on a Finite Planet: Towards transformative responses to climate change, David Satterthwaite, Sheridan Bartlett (2016): Fernando Aragón-Durand, Jan Corfee-Morlot, Robert B R Kiunsi, Mark Pelling, Debra Roberts, William D Solecki, Jo da Silva, David Dodman, Andrew Maskrey, Sumetee Pahwa Gajja, Rafael Tuts, Garima Jain, Amir Bashir Bazaz, David Satterthwaite, Aromar Revi, Jorgelina Hardoy, Luz Stella Velásquez Barrero, Sheridan Bartlett, Shobhakar Dhakal, Sari Kovats and Alice Sverdlik.