How Cities Can Adapt To Climate Change?

Research identifies 15 proven ways that urban areas around the world can adapt to climate risk.

Planet Outlook
July 28, 2021
How Cities Can Adapt To Climate Change?

Cities are on the front lines of the growing physical risks associated with climate change. They are home to more than half of the world’s people, and by 2050, that figure is projected to rise to 68 per cent. Urban areas are often located in places of particular climate risk, such as on coastlines, floodplains, and islands. Moreover, modern urban infrastructure and its operating systems are closely connected. A failure in one part of a network can affect another, multiplying the damage. Flooded roads, for example, can damage links to public transport. Storm surges and extreme heat can lead to power outages that knock out the technology systems critical to homes, hospitals, and industries.

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.

Several important themes emerge from the research. First, nature-based solutions—such as planting trees next to streets, river-catchment management, and sustainable urban-drainage solutions—are among the most attractive actions because of their impact on reducing risks and their feasibility. Nature-based solutions also often provide benefits beyond adaptation in areas such as decarbonization, economic growth, and health.

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 heatwaves. The case study analysed the direct impact of climate-change-driven heat and humidity extremes on India. 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 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.