Around half of the cities of the Old Continent do not have specific plans to adapt or mitigate climate change.
In 2006, pioneering cities such as London and Durban (South Africa) began to incorporate climate change into their policies and plans with the aim of preparing their infrastructures, communities, ecosystems and institutions against the expected impacts.
Since then, numerous cities of all types, and all over the world, have followed their example. Important networks of collaboration between different cities have been established to promote the adoption of measures against climate change (the C40 organization, for example) and agreements have been reached that demonstrate a global commitment, such as the Global Compact of Mayors.
All cities have a voice, regardless of their size, so their role is increasingly important in international negotiations. Something that became clear after the Paris Agreement in 2015, in which there was no doubt about the contribution of non-state actors in the fight against climate change.
Progress and pending subjects
Some studies have attempted to assess the progress made so far in terms of urban adaptation. One of them, a large-scale analysis of 885 European cities, pointed out that only 47% plan to adapt, either focusing on that aspect (26%) or combining adaptation and mitigation, that is, also planning the reduction of emissions from greenhouse gases.
An investigation carried out in December 2016 analyzed 401 cities with a population of more than one million inhabitants and found that only 18% had considered adaptation initiatives. Some studies have focused on countries, such as Canada, the United States, Spain, Italy or the United Kingdom. These studies have several features in common: a developed context and the use of the mere existence of adaptation policies and plans as an indicator of the progress made.
The evaluation of cities
While the advances are positive, how can we be sure that these plans will reduce future risks effectively? First, we must consider whether those plans are politically and economically feasible, second, if the projects and activities are based on sound scientific evidence; and, third, if they will have the support of urban agents and civil society.
To try to answer this question, we have proposed a new method and we have tested it in four pioneering cities: Durban, Quito, Copenhagen and Vancouver. The study aims to assess the credibility of climate change adaptation policies, using metrics that determine if they are financially insured, if the correct climate assessments have been carried out and if the opinions of citizens have been taken into account. .
Some are more exposed to the impact of climate change and pollution than others. Makoko, located in the Nigerian region of Lagos, is famous for the poverty of its floating neighborhoods.
The legitimacy of adaptation policies is crucial. Each public act must be transparent and each proposal must be agreed through participatory processes. In addition, adaptation measures must protect those who are especially exposed to climate impacts. Likewise, it is possible that the same measure may benefit some communities more than others, so it is important to take into account both those who benefit as well as those who do not.
The main conclusion we have reached is that, even in the most advanced cities, there is still much to be done in terms of adaptation, especially with regard to the development of legitimate processes that include communities and all interested parties. It is also very important to establish adequate monitoring systems and allocate a sustainable budget for the implementation of policies, in addition to considering the risks and the uncertainty that climate change itself generates.
The calculation of future risks
In this line, a study conducted in January 2017 calculated the expected economic losses associated with the climate impact as a result of sea level rise in 120 coastal cities around the world throughout this century.
The investigation revealed that uncertainty plays a fundamental role in decision making.
We can classify the events into two types: those that would cause serious economic losses but are unlikely to happen and those that would not generate such devastating damage but the probability of their occurrence is high. The truth is that usually we tend to prevent the latter and to overlook those whose damages are more serious but are much less likely.
If we stick to the 5% of the worst expected cases, this decision can have a great importance for the cities, since the consequences could be catastrophic from the economic, social and environmental perspectives. An illustrative example would be Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York in 2012. After the disaster, the city approved in 2013 the Stronger plan, More Resilient New York (New York stronger and resilient).
The research developed also identified the need to determine the level of risk that cities would be willing to assume. Climate risk, like any other, can not be completely eliminated with reasonable resources. That something is possible does not mean that it is feasible.
An example (somewhat exaggerated): although it is possible to build walls of four meters high to avoid the overflow of a river, it is an unrealistic and practical solution from an economic, environmental or social point of view. To reduce the risk of flooding in the most exposed areas of Bilbao, for example, the city recently opened the Deusto canal. The project will reduce the magnitude of the impact produced by the rains and the rise of the tide, but it can not eliminate it completely.
Following the progress of the cities
To answer these questions we are carrying out the research project Are cities preparing for climate change? (Are cities being prepared for climate change?), Which tracks the adaptive efforts of 136 coastal urban environments.
In the first place, we have gathered information on climate change adaptation policies that can affect the coastal management of these 136 cities. For this we have not only taken into account local policies, but also regional and national ones. Subsequently, we will evaluate which of the plans are likely to be implemented and conserved over time (ie, their credibility), and then proceed to assess whether the proposed measures have the potential to reduce future risks.
We are studying, for example, the national and urban policies related to the adaptation of Montevideo. At this moment we are analyzing with special attention the Climate Plan of the Metropolitan Region of Uruguay to resolve if its implementation is feasible and analyze how the measures for reducing future risks specific to the region have been defined.
The protection of biodiversity and coastal ecosystems, as well as the control of urbanization in areas that tend to erode (as is the case of the Uruguayan capital), are good indicators of future urban adaptability to extreme events.
Although the results of our study will not see the light until 2020, we hope that they will also serve as an example in sectors other than urban coastal adaptation. Similarly, we hope that the same cities can make use of our results to improve their skills when planning adaptation to climate change and, possibly, adapt their strategies to the risks they could face in the future that each time is closer.