Climate Change: the Urban Experience

by Daisy Haywood

Cities are often treated as the scapegoats of climate change. They were the platform for fossil-fuelled industrialisation in the 18th Century, and are now the powerhouses of high consumption lifestyles. Cities consume as much as 80% of energy production worldwide, and account for a roughly equal share of global greenhouse gas emissions. With over half the world's population classified as 'urban' and the future set to be even more of an urban phenomenon, we can no longer turn our backs on cities.

Cities are not only huge contributors to climate change, but are also highly vulnerable to its impacts. 90% of the world's urban areas are situated on coastlines and are thus at risk from rising sea levels and coastal surges. Superstorm Sandy which hit the East Coast of America in 2012 gave a taste of what we may expect in the future: 125 fatalities and $62 billion worth of damage. The potential for catastrophe is even higher in the megacities of developing countries, due to a lack of resilience in both their infrastructure and amongst their populations. City authorities across the world seem to be slowly waking up to the message. The C40 Cities: Climate Leadership Group was created in 2005 by former Mayor of London Ken Livingston, and is an international network of large cities working together to mitigate and adapt to climate change. For example, Rio de Janeiro is introducing a Bus Rapid Transit system, which will serve close to 2 million people per day, and has the potential to reduce carbon emissions from travel as well as to increase the resilience of the city’s transport infrastructure to natural hazards. Their work demonstrates that many cities are in fact way ahead of national governments in terms of ambitious action and are recognising their great potential for effecting change.


Firstly, cities can encourage and empower its citizens to lead a greener life. High urban densities can reduce the costs of delivering key services such as low carbon public transport, efficient waste and recycling systems and community energy generation schemes. Such tangible benefits are likely to encourage behaviour change much more than national policies which lack sufficient flexibility and adaptability to respond to local needs and preferences.

Secondly, cities can be hotbeds of technological change and innovation. Cambridge's clean tech cluster attracts high levels of investment and skilled labour and delivers new products and services which are then utilised, both locally and nationally. Cities are best positioned to foster partnerships between the public and private sector, and pilot new technologies and methods. The Cambridge Retrofit Project is bringing multiple stakeholders together to deliver a city-wide strategy that aims to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

Finally, strong climate action puts cities in a better position to compete in the future. From bidding to host major sporting and cultural events to attracting investment, cities which demonstrate climate innovation and vision are increasingly being rewarded. New York aspires to be America’s largest and greenest city by 2030 not just because it's the right thing to do, but also because it's the profitable thing to do.

On the one hand, cities should be fearful for their futures and the increasing threats of flooding, water shortages, extreme temperatures, natural disasters and the social and economic costs these will impose. On the other hand, cities can be optimistic about their leadership role within the climate change challenge, and their ability to offer their citizens a greener and brighter future.