Cities are centres of innovation and growth, and the engines of European economic development. They host around 75% of the population and use about 80% of the energy produced in Europe, with an expected increasing trend. However, cities are major contributors to climate change, generating significant greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. energy generation, vehicles, industry, and biomass use). At the same time, cities and towns are heavily vulnerable to the impacts of climate change: heat, flooding, water scarcity and droughts can impact health, infrastructure, local economies, and quality of life of city dwellers. Over the past three decades, Europe has seen a 60% increase in extreme weather events. Effective climate action ensures not only resilience to the climate impacts but also important benefits to urban areas in terms of quality of life, improved public health, costs savings as well as job creation.
The capacity to prepare for and respond to climate impacts at the local level is crucial. Urban authorities have a catalyst role in getting together the actors present on their jurisdiction to co-develop policies and strategies for territorial development, also in the context of small and remote territories (e.g. cities in islands or outermost regions). Urban authorities should play a leadership role to create policies responding to citizens' needs and to attract investments for economic development.
Vulnerability to climate change is often a result of human actions, such as settling in risk-prone areas or inadequate planning or building design. For example, the covering of soil for housing, roads and car parks (soil sealing) increases the absorption of energy from the sun and leads to higher urban temperatures (the so-called 'urban heat island effect'). At the same time, natural drainage is decreased, which, particularly during heavy rains, can lead to urban floods.
Through appropriate and resilient urban design the impacts of climate change can be reduced, for instance through the use of green infrastructure such as forests, parks, wetlands, green walls and roofs. Such approaches also lead to significant co-benefits, including improved air quality, support for biodiversity and enhanced quality of life, as well as opportunities for employment.
The European Union is supporting cities in this endeavour through several frameworks. The EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change (2013) provides a framework and mechanisms to improve the preparedness of all actors to deal with current and future climate change impacts. At urban level, the strategy fosters strengthening local authorities’ capacity to adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. The Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy provides a framework that helps to build more sustainable and resilient cities. It stems from the important role that cities and urban areas play in the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement towards low-carbon and climate-resilient development.
There are many outstanding examples of cities implementing ambitious climate action across Europe. The Covenant of Mayors has a collection of case studies and best practices examples on cities and municipalities implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.
The most pressing need for urban authorities is the identification of adaptation solutions that combine sustainable development pathways with equitable and ethical outcomes.
Urban authorities should design adequate adaptation pathways according to the nature, timing, type and level of protection needed: actions should extend the focus on adaptation to assess the increasing understanding of factors that influence decision making and whether and how decisions are implemented. Institutional, economic and social barriers related to the implementation of adaptation measures (resistance to change or social acceptance) should be considered. Urban planning for improved urban governance should help reduce inequalities and poverty while fostering the development of adequate climate and land use policies.
Without being prescriptive in terms of the types of projects expected, cities are invited to consider in particular the following themes and issues:
- Innovative and integrated climate risk and vulnerability assessments, flood/heat risk management plans, capacity-building for cities and information sharing at regional or national scale
- Projects addressing innovative and integrated nature-based water management solutions (flood management and water retention) and development of green and blue infrastructure (forests, parks, wetlands, green walls/roofs, floodplains)
- Promoting climate-resilient urban infrastructure: improved water retention, urban drainage, sewage systems, building standards
- Projects in support of good governance structures and approaches promoting bottom-up resilience and capacity building at neighbourhood and community level. A focus on increased coordination, both vertically (multi-level governance) and horizontally (multi-stakeholder governance); Regional coordination between local authorities to address large-scale or transboundary climate risks
Citizen engagement/participation in urban adaptation projects; increasing social awareness of climate-related hazards; develop financing mechanisms to leverage risk-proofed investments.