What if extreme flooding submerges a chemical plant or snarls traffic? Cities can and must shore up for climate change now, says report

High-profile weather events from so many corners of the world could have an impact in swaying the tax-paying public, and private and civic leaders who no longer can think of climate-change impacts as being decades out, said Brodie Boland, of McKinsey, one of the report’s co-authors.

He said that “adaptation,” as laid out in their research, means that cities can make offensive moves to convert to, for instance, renewable power to save long-run utility costs and cut emissions, but cities will also need to spend for “defensive” moves that shore up infrastructure.

In addition to human cost, expected infrastructure damage and rebuilding demands are already being valued in the billions of dollars for, for instance, a flood-prone Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and along coastal Florida, where the impact of rising sea levels could strip tens of billions of dollars from the value of ocean-side real estate.

By 2050, the report details, more than 800 million urbanites will be impacted by sea-level rise, 1.6 billion will face chronic extreme heat and 650 million could face water scarcity.

And, importantly, these are actions that cities can take now, the researchers said.

The report outlines 15 strategies, chosen for being the most high-impact, easy-to-implement means of making global cities more resilient, and help local leaders work through the “multifaceted, decentralized and unequal consequences of physical climate hazards.”

Four approaches are universal solutions appropriate for all cities: increasing awareness through research and risk assessments, incorporating climate risk through city actions and policies like zoning and urban planning, optimizing responses with early-warning systems and enhancing financing programs like climate insurance.

The remaining 11 may be more valuable depending on climate and geography for issues like droughts or flooding. But there emphasis overall is on nature-based solutions, such as planting heat-mitigating street trees or installing natural infrastructure like salt marshes as coastal barriers.

Cities must also accept that vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, low-income communities, some minority groups, people with disabilities, and women, may be at higher risk for climate-related damage. 

CDP, a nonprofit focused on climate and environmental risk for government bodies and businesses, tracks the climate plans of more than 800 global cities. It says 93% of them recognize climate risk, but 43% don’t have adaptation plans to keep people and critical infrastructure safe. Local leaders routinely tell CDP that budget, housing demands and the challenge of channeling resources first to combat poverty have historically been the main deterrents to action. 

National commitments — in the U.S. and Europe, as well as developing nations — toward emissions reductions and other climate-change policy, and a surge in investment opportunities in the private sector, means that cities would be smart to attach themselves to such momentum and “act now,” said Snigdha Garg, senior manager of adaptation research and integration for C40 Cities and a co-author of the McKinsey-C40 report.

Global sustainable investments have grown to $35.3 trillion in professionally managed assets and now represent 36% of all such assets across the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australasia and Europe, according to this report.

There’s some evidence that cities are acting sooner rather than later. Buffalo, N.Y., has closed on a $49 million deal to fund green storm water infrastructure, the largest such environmental impact bond deal in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, a separate report for the Center for Progressive Reform, EarthJustice and the Union of Concerned Scientists has warned of “double disasters,” or extreme weather followed by an industrial accident. As an example, these researchers found that a third of U.S. chemical facilities are subject to risks like flooding, storm surge and wildfire.

The report notes the significant danger that in interconnected cities flooded roads can snarl traffic and knock out public transit, or storm surges can pound coastal property and damage key power lines. 

Read: Hydrogen, ammonia and a clean-fuel standard could help get the world to net-zero emissions

The role of climate change in city planning and infrastructure upgrades is top of mind as Congress debates versions of proposed infrastructure spending as well as budget reconciliation legislation that has scooped up some of the environmental initiatives cut from the infrastructure bill.

This has included the Civilian Climate Corps, a proposal to employ 1.5 million Americans to build green infrastructure modeled after WPA-era public jobs programs aimed at conservation. Democrats also intend to include a Clean Electricity Standard (CES) in the reconciliation bill aimed at meeting Biden’s goal of achieving 100% carbon-free power by 2035.

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