/ 31 March 2023

Cities are key to tackling climate change

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Africa is on the front lines of climate change. It has been a largely rural continent, but 60% of its population will be living in cities by 2050. Photo: Getty Images.

The Earth has become a “planet of cities” that are hotspots of climate impacts but are also a huge opportunity for ambitious climate action, said a leading climate scientist.

“Cities concentrate people, power and resources and if you want a global change and we do need a global change rapidly, that’s where you need to act,” said Debra Roberts, co-chair of the Working Group II of the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

Africa is on the front lines of climate change. It has been a largely rural continent, but 60% of its population will be living in cities by 2050. She said it was the most rapidly urbanising continent “so if you’re going to see society as a course for change and all those levers for change exist in your urban areas, that’s where you need to get active because that’s where you have the greatest ripple effects”.

Roberts, the acting head of the sustainable and resilient city initiatives unit at the eThekwini municipality and its chief resilience officer, recently spoke to the Mail & Guardian. She is the South African candidate for the chairpersonship of the IPCC during its seventh assessment cycle.

Changing a city means changing everything it connects to. “Certainly, in our Working Group II report, we pointed out that although urban areas only occupy this really small percentage of the global surface … urban activities and related infrastructure consumption impacts on all of the related ecosystem services and non-urban communities.”

Although cities can be part of the solution, they are also an obvious part of the problem. Globally, they account for about 70% of carbon emissions. “If you look at consumption and production, two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions come from urban areas, so that’s where we need to act.” 

In building climate-resilient cities, the equity and justice element can’t be lost, Roberts said. “Many of the big cities are in developing parts of the world, the global south, and there’s a real need to ensure people have access to basic services. There’s an opportunity to drive multiple development agendas in urban areas.”

Last week, the IPCC released its latest Synthesis Report on the climate crisis, which summarises five years of reports on global temperature rises, fossil fuel emissions and climate impacts. It found that human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have caused global warming, with global surface temperature increase now reaching 1.1°C. 

Without drastic and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, global warming may breach the agreed 1.5°C limit before 2035. Current climate policies put the world on track for 3.2°C of warming by 2100, the report said. 

In urban settings, climate change has caused adverse effects on human health, livelihoods and key infrastructure. Hot extremes, including heatwaves, have intensified in cities, where they have also worsened air pollution events and limited functioning of key infrastructure. Urban infrastructure, including transportation, water, sanitation and energy systems have been compromised by extreme and slow-onset events, with resulting economic losses, disruptions of services and impacts to well-being.”

The effects are concentrated among economically and socially marginalised urban residents, for example, those living in informal settlements, the report said.

In the near term, at 1.5°C global warming, the principal hazards and risks are more intense and frequent extreme rainfall and associated flooding in many regions including coastal and other low-lying cities, and increased proportion of and peak wind speeds of intense tropical cyclones.

Urban systems, the report said, are critical for reducing emissions and climate resilience.

The biggest challenge of the moment, Roberts said, is that climate and development can no longer be kept separate. “Every individual, household, community, business and industry has to be asking the climate question of everything they do, if we’re to affect the kind of turnaround that is needed. 

“So when you put a pipe in the ground, where is it going? How close is it to a river that might flood during a storm surge or an unstable slope that may collapse during heavy rainfalls? We need to be doing that and we need to build the capacity for our service providers to do that.” 

The Climate Change Bill legalises the requirement of local government to engage in climate change, she said. “At the moment, it’s an elective thing for local government. You pick it up if you have the vision and resources to do so but it’s not an obligation. You’ve got to structure it in, use the tools of government to say this is so important.” 

And local government officials need to be made “less scared of science”, she said. “Somehow science is this threatening thing … and science bears a responsibility for that because we talk in acronyms and produce graphs that no one can ever understand. 

“We need to do a lot more work in making that science available and accessible to people who need to use it, who don’t have the time to go away and do a four-year degree to be able to understand a 3 000-page report that you’ve just produced.

“We need that capacity building within the cadre of people who are the doers to pick up the science … to enable that transition of their knowledge. We all hold different knowledge and we need to let that flow in a two-way form from science to [local government] practitioners but back from practitioners to science so the scientists also need to be open to hearing these different forms of knowledge.” 

This is the decade of action, she noted, describing how the burdens or benefits of decisions being taken now will be carried by future generations. 

Said Roberts: “We’re literally beginning to make choices on behalf of people who are either new to the world or who haven’t entered it, which is an enormous responsibility.”