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Experts push climate-proof cities, coastal communities

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SINGAPORE - Experts meeting here say climate-proofing a city or coastline is urgently needed to protect millions of people and key infrastructure.

From Manila to New York, cities and coastal areas across the globe are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change coupled with population growth and poverty.

The adaptations prompted by climate change are meant to minimize risks from extreme weather events, powerful storm surges, sea level rise, droughts, rising temperatures and other effects of a changing climate.

Urban populations, according to the United Nations, is projected to increase from 3.9 billion in 2014 to 6.3 billion in 2050.

Asia, the most climate-vulnerable region despite its lower level of urbanization, is home to 53 percent of the world's urban population, followed by Europe with 14 percent and Latin America and the Caribbean with 13 percent.

Smart planning of cities and coastal areas, such as building or planning defenses, securing water supplies or moving people to higher ground, is essential to prepare for the climatic forces, said Steven Wade, head of the Scientific Consultancy at the Met Office, a United Kingdom-based national weather service.

Wade, who presented climate model outputs for climate adaptation in cities at the World Engineers Summit (WES) organized by the Institution of Engineers Singapore, said that adaptation of cities is a significant challenge for planners and engineers, particularly in cities with ageing infrastructure, rapid growth and vulnerable coastal locations.

"Cities and coastal areas need to integrate climate adaptation with disaster mitigation. The evidence on the impacts of climate change is very complex and there is still a lot of uncertainty about the future of tropical cyclones for instance. But generally, there is likely to be an increase of frequency of categories of storms," Wade said, citing the latest edition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th assessment report.

According to the IPCC report, "continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."

It further said "it is likely that the global frequency of occurrence of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged, concurrent with a likely increase in both global mean tropical cyclone maximum wind speed and precipitation rates."

Philippine cities most at risk
Major urban areas such as cities in the Philippines are at higher risk, the experts said, pointing out that the government must strengthen existing and future infrastructure for coping with increasingly frequent disasters, like Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, that devastated central Philippines and killed more than 6,000 people, displaced 4.1 million and caused more than P571 billion in material damage and losses.

"Clearly, the Philippines is highly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions as demonstrated by recent events. There's a whole range of actions or programs that need to be done, ranging from improving weather forecasting and climate change to improving resilience of coastal areas. So the government needs to think more on resilience and more adaptation," Wade told the InterAksyon.

Wade cited that information about the risks or coastal flooding and tropical cyclone tracks must be made available for communities to understand the risks that the country is confronting.

"I think in the post-disaster context, the Philippines needs to rebuild things in a much better way that takes account of risks, whether by moving back or away from the coastline or by building stronger buildings, higher floor levels or better flood defenses, so all options need to be considered," the climate expert said, suggesting that there is a need for disaster risk specialists to work with the local planners and the government as well as with communities on what are the best approaches for the Philippines.

Cities, battleground for climate change
Cities account for more than half of the world's population and consume 75 percent of its energy, said Milag San Jose Ballesteros, Regional Director for Southeast Asia and Oceania of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of the world's megacities taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ballesteros explained that cities, accounting for 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, are expected to grow exponentially in the future, adding that more people will be living in cities by 2025 through 2050.

"Cities would be where the battle on climate change will need to be waged," Ballesteros told InterAksyon. "However, where the problem lies also rests the solutions. Cities worldwide have shown commitment to address climate change by coming up with innovative solutions to curb emissions as well as improve resilience to climate impacts."

She disclosed that about 8,000 policies, programs and measures to address climate issues have been enacted related to water, energy efficiency, energy supply, finance and economic development, sustainable communities, transport and on waste.

Given the nimbleness of cities and orientation towards concrete action on the ground, Ballesteros added that cities are able to focus efforts to address climate change through tailored policies and programs that are most meaningful to their contexts and citizens.

"It is important that cities continue to learn to come up with new solutions and improve and strengthen existing climate actions. One of the best ways to be able to do this would be to exchange experiences, insights and learning with other cities faced with similar challenges to scale up solutions that work," she said.

Partnership and collaboration with the communities, citizens and private sectors is likewise essential and could move city actions for wider, comprehensive and effective implementation, Ballesteros explained.

Bolder action is needed to boost climate resilience in cities and coastal locations, and with proper planning, resources and political commitment, cities can be part of the solution, said Bindu Lohani, former vice-president for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development of the Asian Development Bank, and now a fellow of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan.

"Cities have great responsibility in economic growth. There is a huge economic impact of climate change and so we need to make our cities smart and resilient," Lohani said during the opening ceremony of the World Engineers Summit here.

Lohani said most of Asian countries face significant exposure to a wide array of natural disasters coupled with the impacts of climate change, adding that the main challenge for countries is probability and risks. He suggested that engineers, for instance, must focus on resiliency in designing innovative climate solutions.