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Flood warning

Flood warning

Part two of the IPCC landmark report on climate change highlights both the risks and opportunities for cities.

Bangkok. Jakarta. Lagos. New Orleans. These large coastal cities – located on deltas, with high levels of inequality – are some of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. Scientists now say that the combination of rising sea levels, extreme weather events and population change in low-lying areas will put about a billion people at risk from coastal climate hazards beyond 2040. But they’ve also found that cities can offer the best hope of limiting that threat.

Last summer, the UN sounded the alarm: the planet is on track to exceed 1.5 degrees of global warming. A second report, released yesterday, explains why it matters.

Scientists from 67 countries (including, for as long as they could manage, a delegation from Ukraine) have assessed the latest climate science to evaluate who, what and where will be impacted by rising global temperatures, sea-level rise and biodiversity loss. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”. 

Across 3500 pages, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides policymakers with a handbook of tools to protect against and adapt to those already-occurring changes – and identifies their limits if humans fail to rapidly reduce emissions. At its core, the report highlights three key concepts for protecting people and planet in the immediate term:

  • Coastal cities are ground zero. If sea levels rise an average of 0.15 meters, the population in coastal cities at risk of once-in-a-century flooding will increase by 20 per cent. Between $8 and $14 trillion of assets could lie in areas potentially vulnerable to the same fate. But the report also says urbanisation offers a priceless opportunity to advance “climate-resilient development”. “In Africa and Asia, urbanisation is happening so rapidly right now that if adaptation is not considered, the responses afterwards are going to be more costly and less effective,” said David Dodman, lead author of the chapter on cities.
  • Biodiversity is our ally. “The DNA of the report is the argument that human social systems are closely intertwined with natural and biodiversity linked systems. And all of those are impacted by climate change,” said IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair Debra Roberts. Keeping those systems functioning and healthy will require conservation of 30 to 50 per cent of Earth’s land and sea area. The report also highlights the benefits of carbon-trapping wetlands over concrete seawalls, and the cooling effect of urban greenery over air-con.
  • Climate risks are interacting in new ways. “Complex, compound and cascading.” This is the new lexicon for understanding climate risk. Examples include: heat and drought events causing declining crop yield and rising tree mortality; sea-level rise combining with heavy rainfall to worsen floods; and heat stress that hits productivity and exacerbates risks to food production. 

The IPCC doesn’t tell policy makers what to do. Even so, several scientists involved in the process told us what sort of action they’d like to see. Funding for adaptation came up frequently – and no wonder:

  • Adaptation finance is growing, but more is needed. Globally, finance for adaptation increased by 53 per cent to $46 billion in 2019/2020, according to Climate Policy Initiative. It needs to grow faster before warming exceeds 2 degrees – widely viewed as the threshold at which many adaptation solutions become redundant. The UN Environment Programme estimates that annual adaptation costs in developing economies alone will be from $155 to $330 billion by the end of the decade. At Cop26 developed nations pledged to double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation to developing countries to $40 billion by 2025. 
  • Cities are major contributors… Over 800 cities have set up 3,177 projects aimed at addressing climate hazards, at a cost of $35 billion. So far, water and waste management has been the primary focus of funding, but Dodman says cities would do well to take note of an increasing focus in the science on heat islands and the compounding effect that high temperatures have on urban pollution. 
  • …but private capital isn’t interested. Despite insured losses from natural disasters reaching $105 billion last year, investors haven’t got the memo that adaptation pays. A dollar invested in adaptation today will save $5 in future losses and damages, according to the Grantham Institute at LSE. But the private sector provides less than 5 per cent of adaptation funds, even though it provides over half of global funding for mitigation. “The IPCC report provides a blueprint for investors. It’s effectively a risk management tool, and we should use it”, says Sean Kidney, CEO of the Climate Bonds Initiative.

The mixed success of the Cop process has led some to question whether government or business is best placed to accelerate climate action. Most governments have some sort of climate change strategy, but adaptation plays a quiet second fiddle to mitigation. And of the countries that actually have a National Adaptation Plan, only 60 per cent make an effort to track whether it’s working. 

At Cop26, an alliance of climate-vulnerable countries made repeated requests that adaptation finance be put on par with funds for cutting emissions. But it can’t be a zero sum game. With every rise in temperature, adaptation measures become less effective. At the same time, adapting with natural solutions has big co-benefits: it sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere and supports livelihoods. This shouldn’t be a question of either/or but rather how fast and who pays. Directing finance to where it’s needed most – to coastal cities – is step one.

Slow & inefficient transition

Episode one of our myth-busting new podcast series with the Centre for Net Zero and Octopus Energy will be available for Tortoise members to listen to from the 9 March.


Nuclear re-think
If Germany’s Green party – now in government – has a single raison d’etre, it is to ditch nuclear power. Under current plans, the country will close down its three remaining nuclear plants by the end of this year. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is prompting a re-think. Robert Habeck, economy minister, vice-chancellor and Green party co-leader, was asked on Sunday whether he could imagine allowing nuclear plans to run longer. “I would not reject it on ideological grounds,” he said, U-turning on 40 years of party policy. In practice, the shutdown is already too advanced for nuclear power to compensate for the loss of Russian gas next winter. For now, Reuters reports Habeck is trying to speed up renewables expansion instead. In the longer term, nuclear may be back on Germany’s agenda.

engagement and activism

Curious about climate
At Cop26 Nadhim Zahawi, the UK’s education secretary, committed to “put climate change at the heart of education”. But a recent response to recommendations by the Environmental Audit Committee revealed there is so far no intention to provide further emphasis on climate in the National Curriculum, despite polling by the Royal Society of Chemists that shows pupils, teachers and industry are largely in favour of more climate science. Two thirds of secondary chemistry teachers think the chemistry curriculum should have more content on climate change and sustainability. Pupils agree: 66 per cent of those aged 17 and 18 tell the RSC they want more detailed coverage of sustainability and climate change in lessons. “The school chemistry curriculum must be updated to close this gap in skills and knowledge needed for green jobs now and in the future,” said the society’s Sarah Robertson. What’s CO2 if not chemistry?


Giants quit Russia
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is upending the energy market. Yesterday Shell became the second oil and gas company to announce it was ridding itself of a stake in a Russian fossil fuel firm. Shell’s board announced it was ditching $3 billion worth of shares in Gazprom (in which the Russian state is the majority shareholder) and other companies, after BP promised to shed its 20 per cent stake in Rosneft on Sunday. Both companies are likely to take a financial hit from the move, but Shell’s chief executive, Ben van Beurden, said his decision was taken “with conviction”. How quickly and easily Shell and BP will be able to offload the shares remains to be seen.

science and tech

Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, has filed a complaint to the US Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of misleading investors about its efforts to tackle climate change misinformation. In 2020, Facebook set up a Center for Countering Digital Hate to fact-check climate information on the platform. But Haugen’s complaint cites internal documents that said awareness of the service was “very low” among users. Last week, research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Facebook failed to add labels to half of posts that pushed content from the “Toxic Ten” – a list of ten publishers that account for up to 69 per cent of Facebook user interactions with climate denial articles.

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday. Edited by Giles Whittell.

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