Cities consume the largest share of the world’s energy supply. They are responsible for 70% of the energy-related greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Currently, more than half of the world’s populations reside in cities. According to the UN, another 2.5 billion people will move into urban areas by 2050.

Carbon dioxide levels are extremely high today, majorly due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Cities are responsible for the bulk of these emissions because of inadequate planning and layout as well as high population density. With homes far from work and public transport not meeting demands, city residents are buying more cars, thus emitting more carbon dioxide. What's more, with more people comes more energy needs and more greenhouse gas emissions.

Although cities are a major cause of climate change, they are also most at risk. Many of them are close to the shoreline which means they are constantly under threat posed by rising sea levels and more frequent storms.

Nearly 80 percent of cities around the world will face dramatic climate changes in 30 years. Scientists at the Crowther Lab have studied more than 500 cities, to see how they would be impacted by a global temperature hike of another half a degree. The study has found that tropical cities will feel the strongest impact by 2050.

However, since cities are major hubs of creativity and innovation, the world is also relying on them to provide solutions in the fight against climate change. Innovations in the areas of mobility, infrastructure development, and energy production can help deliver the necessary emission cuts.

Fortunately, some cities around the world are already taking the necessary steps to cut down greenhouse gas emissions. A good number of them are designing policies geared towards steering them to alternative energy sources in coming years. However, a lot more needs to be done by the policymakers in various cities if they are to keep pace with the speed of climate change and soaring population growth.

How Climate Change Will Affect (and Is Affecting) Cities

How Will Climate Change Transform U.S. Cities?

Climate change is already affecting cities in a number of ways. They include the following:

Global warming is one of the chief signs of climate change. Between 1999 and 2010, more than 2,039 heat-related deaths were reported in the United States. Between 1999 and 2018, heat also caused more weather-related deaths in the US than any other natural disaster.  In Europe, more than 70,000 people died in the 2003 heatwave.

Hurricanes are another climate-change-related threat ravaging cities. They are getting stronger and flooding cities a lot more.  Dozens of people died due to flooding in the US in 2019. Natural disasters like wildfires are also causing more damage due to longer-lasting droughts.

More Power Outages

New York City (Manhattan) from Gantry Park after Hurricane Sandy. The left side is all dark due to power outage while the right side still has power. Photo Credit: TenSafeFrogs

We are using more power to counter the soaring temperatures. It will take about 20-25% more electricity to power cooling systems when the temperature is 90°F compared to when it is 80°F. If it rises to 95°F, 40% more power will be required. Also, since most power plants need water to cool down, faster evaporation as a result of warmer temperatures can force some of these plants to shut down in the middle of operations.

Increased Infrastructure Failures

Apart from failing power plants, more heat means infrastructures like roads and rail tracks will melt or expand. There’ll also be more delays at airports as flight operators won’t take off or land planes if the tarmac is deemed too hot.

When heat isn’t melting asphalt, floods can wash away entire road sections, damaged bridges, and wash away river banks. Flooding from natural disasters like hurricanes isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon in the future. In the US, an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are expected across all the regions.

Economic Loss

All the existing effects of climate change are a huge drain on the economies of various cities around the world. In the US, some of the biggest economic losses from climate change have happened in the last two decades. For example, 90% of the ten costliest hurricanes in US history have happened in the last 15 years, and according to experts, we will see an increase in the frequency of these storms, as well as more serious damages, in the future.

Unexpected expenses arising from flooding, snow removal, storm management, and droughts can also disrupt businesses and also distort the budgets of the affected cities.

If climate change continues at the current pace, these problems cities are currently facing will only continue to worsen with each passing year.

Can Cities Solve Climate Change?

Our cities are changing. More than ever, cities around the world are taking action to build sustainable economies. With over 1,000 projects planned worth $52 billion USD, a tipping point on environmental action is within reach. But to get there, we need to move even faster.

Since cities are at the forefront of all innovations around the world, they can play an important role in solving climate change. They can champion progress in the fight against climate change by cutting down pollution and adopting climate-friendly policies such as improved sanitation, and the construction of buildings that are energy-efficient.

Governments at the city level are also an important pillar in the fight against climate change. They have more flexibility when compared to state and national governments. This gives them the opportunity to take more climate-change-related action that will yield immediate results.

If more city governments around the world adopt this approach, they can gradually set the tone and help the world to solve climate change.

The Cities That Can Make the Biggest Impact

Pushed by the Extinction Rebellion group, many countries declared a climate emergency last year, including the UK, Canada, France, and Argentina—joining over 983 jurisdictions around the globe. However, policymakers know that the biggest wins in the fight against climate change will be recorded at the city level.

While most of the focus will be on the major cities, it is the smaller cities with populations of less than 500,000 that can make the biggest impacts in this fight. More than half of urban dwellers live in these smaller cities, and they also hold more than 50% of the 2030 emission reduction potential.

Unfortunately, many of these cities lack the financial capacity and political power to bring about tangible change in the fight against climate change, especially when compared to the larger cities. The situation is the same, even in the most developed economies of the world. If we must make a dent in the climate change battle, therefore, global cities and these smaller towns must be given the power to make meaningful changes.

US Cities Leading the Charge Against Climate Change

After Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, many US cities took on the challenge of ensuring adherence to the agreements of the accord. Below are some of them:

New York City, New York

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez greet each other during a press conference announcing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's signing of an executive order to raise the living wage law minimum salary to $13.13 an hour, in the city of New York, September 30, 2014. On June 2, 2017, the mayor signed another executive order that would ensure that New York City would remain committed to the Paris climate change agreement.

New York City was one of the most vocal against Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Paris climate accord. The mayor De Blasio signed an order ensuring that the city will remain committed to the Paris agreement. This is in addition to the promise of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. The city has also mapped out billions of dollars for the following reasons:

  • Retrofitting 1 million buildings to get them more energy efficient.
  • Using more electric vehicles in the municipal fleet.
  • Coating rooftops with solar panels.
  • Planting thousands of trees.

San Francisco, California

Since 2008, the city departments in San Francisco have been required to submit climate action plans. Its environment code has been guiding ecological regulations across the city for years—addressing issues such as how to handle construction debris and building requirements. The city also has the “0-50-100-Roots” plan as a guide to an ecofriendly future.  Some of the highlights of the plan include:

  • A plan to reach zero waste by the end of 2020.
  • Making sure that 50% of the trips in the city are taken on “sustainable transportation”.
  • Use of 100% renewable energy by 2045.
  • Protection for the city’s tree canopy.

Austin, Texas

In Austin, climate change is threatening people's way of life. Learn more about what this means for Austin, the actions the city is taking to address climate impacts, and what you can do to help.

Austin became the first Southern city in the US to declare a climate emergency in August 2019. Some of the actions it is taking in the fight against climate change include:

  • Pushing to ensure that 65% of the energy consumption comes from renewable sources by 2027.
  • Setting a community-wide goal of net-zero emissions from greenhouse gases by 2050.

Portland, Oregon

Portland was the first local government in the US to adopt a plan for reducing carbon emissions.  In 2009, it adopted the Portland Climate Action Plan.  The main objective of the plan is to reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, with a mid-term goal of 40% by 2030.

The city has reduced emissions by 14% as of 2013. It achieved this through the combination of better efficiency in buildings, a shift to lower-carbon energy sources, encouraging walking, biking and the use of public transportation, etc.

Houston, Texas

The Houston city government now powers its buildings from almost 100% renewable sources.  In April 2017, it launched a 50MW solar plant, based in Alpine, which can provide around 10.5% of the city’s energy needs.  The plant has over 200,000 solar panels and is a reflection of the state’s commitment to embracing solar energy a bit more.

The city is also working hard to cut emissions. Since 2007, it has seen a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across its municipal operations.

Conclusion

Cities are the biggest contributors to global emissions, thus, powering climate change. If more governments wake up to the importance of cities in the fight against climate change and provide them with the political power and resources necessary to take the right actions, we’ll have a better shot at mitigating the future impacts of climate change while ensuring more eco-friendly and climate-change-ready environments in the present.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.