Cities are hotbeds of climate action, places of possibility where density can help people lead less carbon-intense lives. But there can also be intense vulnerability from the rising waters, hotter temperatures and more extreme weather associated with climate change.
Many U.S. cities are still willfully blind to the climate risks they face, said Harriet Tregoning, a former top official in the Obama-era Department of Housing and Urban Development. But they hold tremendous potential, she said.
“It’s all trying to make human settlement patterns more compact and sustainable, and make cities more human and more inclusive,” said Tregoning, who was also the director of the D.C. Office of Planning and now leads the New Mobility Alliance at the World Resources Institute, a think tank.
On Thursday, the U.N. climate summit will address its last daily theme: Cities, regions and built environment. Here’s what you need to know.
What are the central problems we face under this theme?
The risks were on display around the country this summer. Portland, Ore., a city where 1 in 5 households is without air conditioning, had a string of record-hot days in June, up to 112 degrees, leading to more than 60 deaths. In August, Newark had its wettest day on record when Hurricane Ida hit it; more than 50 people died in the Northeast in flash floods, mostly after they were trapped in basement apartments.
Around the world, many cities are even more vulnerable. New Delhi, the capital of India, has some of the worst air pollution in the world, with microscopic particles that come from burning coal and other fossil fuels hanging thick in the air. At its worst, the pollution seeps everywhere, even inside the homes of people who try to seal it away. One million people a year die prematurely in India because of air quality issues.
The density of cities is both their burden and their boon. Without proper sewers and rainwater management, they can flood easily, especially since rainfall is growing heavier in many places. In parts of the Western U.S., they have the opposite problem: they’re too thirsty, and they face water shortages because snowpack no longer feeds as much water into river systems as it used to.
Cars are another big challenge. They pollute. In the United States, people drive them — a lot — even for short trips, especially in areas with poor public transportation.
What are potential solutions?
Many urban planners think that cities will eventually be key solutions to helping societies decarbonize, as electricity generation moves from massive centralized power plants to more local, smaller-scale wind and solar installations. Power can go from the solar panels on roofs to the batteries in electric cars — which might power lights at nighttime. Smart grids might turn off a home’s air conditioning to help reduce the surges in electricity demand that force the use of fossil fuel plants.
But all that requires very different ways of organizing the basic infrastructure of cities. And the transition also raises questions about equity for people who can’t afford a new electric car or who live in apartment buildings and don’t own roofs where they can install solar panels. In California, which leads the country in electric vehicle infrastructure, most charging stations are on private land and associated with off-street parking — not an easy option for lower-income people living in apartment buildings.
City planners are also working to make it easier to get around cities without cars: building bike paths, improving public transportation, increasing green spaces.
“The things that help the competitiveness, affordability and livability of cities also happen to reduce carbon when it comes to transportation. So that’s why it’s popular to talk about making investments in transit. That’s why biking and bike infrastructure is important,” Tregoning said.
What solutions are already underway in the U. S.?
Ithaca, N.Y., voted last week to electrify and decarbonize its buildings — all of them, including its private ones. The project will find ways to strip fossil fuels out of buildings’ energy sources, electrifying their heating systems and phasing out the use of gas-fired water heaters and stoves.
“We can be a replicable model for a lot of places,” Luis Aguirre-Torres, Ithaca’s director of sustainability, told The Washington Post last week.
Boston has also been hard at work on a suite of measures to adapt to climate change, building a network of elevated parks around its shoreline to try to protect against storm surges.
What developments can we expect out of COP26?
Some of the $100 billion annual funding that has been promised to developing nations to fight climate change could be spent on decarbonizing the built environment. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced last week that he planned to make half of his country’s power-generating capacity renewable by 2030, a step that would help clean emissions in cities.
And, all around the pavilions, countries are touting the small-scale innovations that could help dense collections of people lead more climate-friendly lives, including efforts to build smart grids and small-scale, local electricity generation with solar and wind power.