Report identifies 15 high-potential actions for cities to adapt to climate risks

Cities are a key contributor to climate change and are responsible for 75 percent of global CO2 emissions (Image: The Digital Artist, Pixabay)
Cities are a key contributor to climate change and are responsible for 75 percent of global CO2 emissions (Image: The Digital Artist, Pixabay)

As cities around the world face a growing climate crisis, McKinsey Sustainability and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group has released a new report called ‘How cities can adapt to climate change’ that identifies 15 ‘high potential’ ways in which urban areas around the world can adapt to climate risk. The report examines five climate hazards – extreme heat, drought, wildfire, inland flooding and coastal flooding – and identifies actions directed at these particular climate risks as well as those that can help cities build systemic resilience.

This report seeks to help leaders set priorities and choose courses of action. It identifies a starting list of 15 high-potential actions that can work for many types of cities. The actions were chosen on the basis of three main sources: C40 Cities Climate Leadership and McKinsey analysis, consultation with adaptation experts and city leaders, and an extensive literature review.

Some of the 15 actions, such as building barriers to protect coastal areas and retrofitting infrastructure, are complex and expensive. Others, such as planting trees next to streets and initiating behavioral-change programs to conserve water, aren’t.

The actions outlined in the report include:

  • Planting street trees
  • Implementing cool surfaces such as white roofs and walls
  • Adding coastal-based barriers, like mangroves
  • Encouraging water conservation behavior programs
  • Facilitating prescribed burns in forests
  • Enhancing financial and insurance programs
  • Instituting emergency protocols and early warning systems, like
  • evacuation plans and tropical storm early warnings

Previous research has shown the risks of not acting – in India hundreds of millions of people could be at risk of lethal heat waves. The case study analysed the direct impact of climate-change-driven heat and humidity extremes on India.

During a 2019 heat wave, Patna, Gaya, Bhagalpur, and other cities in eastern India experienced hundreds of fatalities and daytime outdoor work was banned. Given the inherent risk projection, adaptation is likely to happen, for example, by shifting working hours for outdoor workers, undertaking albedo heat management efforts in cities, establishing early-warning systems and cooling shelters to protect people, and, at the extreme, movement of people and capital from high-risk areas.

The report also discusses about how early-warning systems and protocols alert city leaders and residents that extreme weather events may be on the way so that they can prepare for them. Such warnings are critical for protecting people and assets, and they can take a variety of forms, from digital messaging and broadcasts to putting signs on the backs of rickshaws, as the Indian city of Ahmedabad does.

Cities should begin by identifying the hazards they face today and those that are likely to materialize in the coming decades. Then cities can assess the risks posed by each—to people (particularly the most vulnerable), assets, and services. Creating an inclusive process to solicit feedback and lay the foundation for equitable action is critical.

Keeping the local context in mind, cities should develop a provisional list of the most promising systemic and hazard-specific actions. Cities should consider local conditions such as climate, governance, and finance to determine how far and how fast they can go.

This report has identified a set of actions that are likely to have high potential across many types of cities; nevertheless, cities must also evaluate their specific circumstances and prioritize actions accordingly. To build the case for action, cities can also identify climate-related actions with wider benefits, such as those that foster environmental improvement, economic development, or social equity.

Once impact and feasibility analyses for each action have been completed, a city can consolidate this information and form a plan. Identifying changes that complement actions of other levels of government, such as national climate-adaptation plans, is also useful. When possible, actions should be incorporated into existing city processes, such as infrastructure maintenance plans or budget-setting processes.

To be effective, these plans must be tailored to local conditions. But following five fundamental elements can help ensure that adaptation plans are constructive. These elements are governance, strategic planning, monitoring and reporting, capacity building and stakeholder management and financing.  

Public finance, in the form of annual budget allocations, is one source. Cities will need to be innovative in tapping into private resources and expertise, through public–private partnerships, green bonds, insurance, and other strategies.  

The report builds on previous research from McKinsey and C40 Cities, which analysed the biggest opportunities for cities to accelerate the reduction of their carbon emissions. In addition to outlining high potential actions, the report includes recommendations for how cities can implement these actions, outlining steps to develop a climate-resilience plan and five principles that should inform the plan. 

The full report can be accessed here

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