The battle against climate change is likely to be won or lost in Asia's expanding megacities. Asian cities are poised to contribute more than half the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years if no action is taken. But with planning, resources and political commitment, cities can be part of the climate change solution.
Bangkok, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Kolkata, Manila, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Yangon have one thing in common. These low-lying or coastal cities are all highly vulnerable to rising sea levels, floods, and other impacts of climate change.
Major urban areas in the Pacific are at higher risk still. However, even inland cities in the region could be suddenly devastated by sudden extreme weather events like typhoons, or suffer rising temperatures and increasingly uncertain weather that damages infrastructure and livelihoods.
Cities are the centers of economic growth in Asia and the Pacific, generating 80% of gross domestic product in most countries. Approximately 1.2 billion Asians will move to cities over the next 35 years requiring the construction of swathes of new homes, roads, and water and electricity networks.
City leaders need to make sure existing and future infrastructure can cope with increasingly frequent disasters like Typhoon Ketsana, which killed hundreds and caused an estimated $100 million in damage in the Philippines in 2009, or Cyclone Pam in March 2015, which flattened 90% of houses and destroyed critical water and food supplies in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila and beyond.
“Climate proofing is crucial. All ADB’s projects are assessed for climate risk, and ADB is also working toward integrating management of disaster risks while building bridges, power plants, or other infrastructure.”
Integrated urban planning
Cities also need to be prepared for the sustained year in, year out, stress from climate change. This means installing sanitation infrastructure that is able to cope with higher-than-anticipated rainfall, water systems that work even during droughts, electricity pylons that can withstand high winds, and roads that don’t crack during heatwaves.
“Climate proofing is crucial. All ADB’s projects are assessed for climate risk, and ADB is also working toward integrating management of disaster risks while building bridges, power plants, or other infrastructure,” said Preety Bhandari, who heads ADB’s Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management Unit.
In 2014, ADB approved $1.97 billion in financing for 22 urban development projects, taking total urban lending to just over $24 billion. But city planners must also consider how all these systems interact so one vulnerability won’t undermine the rest of the urban network. For example, climate-proofing a school is pointless if roads to it are impassable.
This is a key goal for ADB in Bangladesh, for example, where a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in temperature and 4% increase in precipitation are forecast to cause the sea level in the Bay of Bengal to rise by 27 centimeters or more by 2050.
The $52 million Coastal Towns Environmental Infrastructure Project is financing climate-resilient municipal infrastructure, such as drainage, water supply and sanitation systems in eight vulnerable coastal secondary cities. The project ensures local urban planning authorities take into account the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.
Cutting urban emissions
At the same time, cities need to become part of the climate change solution. Asia’s cities already consume 80% of the region's energy and create 75% of its carbon emissions. Asian cities are poised to contribute more than half the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years if no action is taken.
Making cities resilient also means making them less energy-intensive through more and better public transport, energy-efficient buildings, and greater use of renewable energy.
Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province in the People’s Republic of China, opted to build a bus rapid transit system rather than more roads, slashing the city’s carbon dioxide emissions. ADB is also helping support a similar system in Peshawar and Karachi in Pakistan, and a mass rail transit system in Viet Nam’s increasingly congested and polluted Ho Chi Minh City.
Tackling the urban divide
ADB’s Urban Operational Plan for 2012-2020 underlines the critical need to ensure that cities are inclusive economic powerhouses while mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. More than half of the world’s slum dwellers - an estimated 522.6 million people in mid-2012 - live in Asia, and if nothing is done that figure may rise to 1 billion by 2050.
“The poorest communities in cities often live in the most vulnerable, least safe neighborhoods in low-lying areas on coasts or riverbanks so homes, services, and livelihoods of those families are hit hardest by climate change-related events,” said Vijay Padmanabhan, technical advisor on water and urban issues at ADB.
Making cities more resilient to climate change benefits everyone: those living in the cities, businesses, and - given Asia’s growing economic clout - the rest of the world too.