The impact of climate in the cities of the future

Cities are hot spots on the world map responsible for more than two thirds of global GHG emissions, but they are simultaneously key to tackle climate change

This article was written in co-authorship by Manuel Gouveia Pereira, Managing Associate at Vieira de Almeida, and Anna Tovchko, Consultant at Vieira de Almeida.    

Rising urbanisation, alongside with climate change, has drastically altered life conditions of city residents. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2050, urban areas could increase up to 211% over the 2015 global urban extent, with the median projected increase ranging from 43% to 106%. While the largest absolute amount of new urban land is forecasted to occur in Asia and Developing Pacific, and in Developed Countries, the highest rate of urban land growth is projected to occur in Africa, Eastern Europe and West-Central Asia, and in the Middle East.

Urban areas have become hot spots on the world map, concentrating emissions resulting from transport and industrial activities, with city residents feeling the global temperature increase significantly. In summer, heat from the walls of the houses, vapour from hot asphalt and vehicle and industrial emissions create a “heat dome” and a “greenhouse effect”, making it impossible for residents to feel the evening coolness and causing serious health issues. It should be noted, however, that while cities are responsible for more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, they also offer the biggest opportunity to reduce reliance on automobiles and use sustainable building materials.  

The European Environment Agency (EEA), in its latest report on climate-related impacts on cities highlighted that cities in south-eastern Europe face the highest projected increase in the frequency of heatwaves combined with the lowest provision of green space and the most pronounced urban heat island (UHI) effect. Summer 2022 has been considered “Europe’s hottest on record”(Copernicus), with close to 90 cities issuing heat alerts.

The World Meteorological Organization under the direction of the United Nations Secretary-General, in its latest report on the most recent science related to climate change, impacts and responses, released this September, underlines that “Billions of people are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. As a result, adaptation and disaster risk reduction are crucial to lower the risks of climate impacts”, further highlighting that “cities are major contributors to global emissions and highly vulnerable to climate impacts”.         

In the last few years climate-related events and catastrophes have multiplied and are undeniable, leading to a huge quantity of material losses and, most importantly, loss of human lives. Some of the most recent examples are the record-flooding in Germany (July 2021), landslides in Brazil (February 2022), tropical storm in the Philippines (April 2022), floods in South Africa (April 2022), floods in China (May 2022), forest fires and heat waves throughout Europe (July and August 2022), and floods in Pakistan (August 2022).

How should these events and impacts be addressed in cities?

Numerous instruments addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation have been developed at an international and European level, such as the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the New Urban Agenda, the European Climate Law and the European Green Deal, which includes the European Climate Pact. The question is: will these instruments be enough to mitigate climate-related events, and will the public and private sectors act swiftly?    

Cities around the world are already actively participating in the process of improving the urban climate by setting up alliances, associations, campaigns, networks, sharing positive experiences, identifying the best ideas and ways to implement them. According to the EEA Report “Urban adaptation in Europe: how cities and towns respond to climate change” the most relevant initiatives are: the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, the Making Cities Resilient Campaign, the Global Resilient Cities Network, C40 Cities, the Cool Cities Network, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, Climate Alliance, Eurocities, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

What are the best solutions? Every city is trying to increase the amount of green space, either by increasing parks or by reducing asphalt-paved areas in favour of grassy areas. The ​​​use of house roofs as gardens, vegetable gardens or simply islands of greenery is also a very popular trend, as well as the planting of trees adapted to local conditions in order to improve resilience and absorb the maximum amount of CO2. The collection of rainwater and storing it in the right way for future use is also gaining momentum.

In many cities, there has been a gradual replacement of public transport vehicles with sustainable mobility, such as electric vehicles, while some cities are moving even further by introducing tolls, restricting diesel cars, and/or closing city centers to private vehicles and improving energy efficiency in buildings.

Incentives to install and increase solar panels for generation of electricity have been created in several countries. According to the report issued by Ember, “the EU generated a record 12% of its electricity from solar from May to August 2022, helping to avoid a potential €29 billion in fossil gas imports”.

Many city programmes aim to combine “green” and “blue” in cities. The attempts to increase the number of parks with fountains, artificial lakes, and refreshing arches in the streets are very much welcomed by both experts and ordinary citizens. It seems that the so called “policy of shades” and passive cooling will play a decisive role in climate change adaptation.

What more can be done?

Some key message for cities:

– Consider climate change impacts in the city master plan, e.g. designing of urban infrastructure and built environment, ensuring their functionality in the future and reducing catastrophe damages (EEA);

– Improve access to knowledge and funding, making effective use of land use planning regulations and tools, and facilitating both political and community engagement;

 – Monitor and evaluate adaptation actions implemented (EEA);

 -Treat climate change as an essential part of sustainable urban development (EEA);

 – Adaptation is crucial to lower the risks to climate impacts (United in Science 2022)

Finally, we would to like to point out the commitments undertaken by Lisbon, the city where we live and work, and an urban area increasingly affected by climate change, especially heat waves. After being the first European capital city to sign the New Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, in 2016, Lisbon won the European Green Capital Award for 2020. Since then, it has adopted a Climate Action Agenda for 2030 and is now focused on reaching a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, with the ultimate target of being carbon neutral by 2050, and adopting various climate change resilience measures.      

Although a big effort is under way, regarding the creation of bicycle lanes and underground flood prevention infrastructures, key measures such as shades, sustainable mobility, blue/green networks, energy-efficient buildings and solar panel use have yet to receive a significant boost.    

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