We are getting better at planning for climate change in cities, but the most vulnerable are still neglected

Devastating effects of a hypothetical flood of water in Madrid due to the effects of global warming

Most local authorities are not considering the needs of vulnerable people sufficiently when planning for climate change, according to a study of more than 300 European cities.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, requires regular assessments of climate change adaptation progress, and a global stocktake is currently taking place to measure implementation. While these agreements and initiatives many times overlook what subnational governments are doing, there recently appears that much is going on at the local scale. The question is whether this is sufficient and whether cities are getting better at preparing for climate change impacts or not.

A recent study involving Dr Marta Olazabal, an Ikerbasque Research Associate at the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3) and other 30 scientists all over Europe, has found that only 167 out of a representative sample of 327 European cities had full urban adaptation plans by the end of 2020 – with most found in the UK, followed by Poland, France, and Germany.

The research, led by the University of Twente in the Netherlands, created indices to evaluate the quality of urban adaptation plans in relation to six well-established principles: 1.) fact base of potential impacts and risks in the local area; 2.) adaptation goals; 3.) adaptation measures; 4.) details on the implementation of adaptation measures; 5.) monitoring & evaluation of adaptation measures; and 6.) societal participation in plan creation.

It also measured consistency, namely that impacts/risks, goals, measures, monitoring, and participation are aligned with each other. For example, if a city identifies that it is vulnerable to an increase in heatwaves, which put older people at particular risk, a good plan also designs and implements specific heat-related measures, focusing on the elderly, and puts mechanisms in place to assess whether the heat risk for the elderly has reduced after implementation of such heat-related measures.

Findings showed that the general quality of plans, as well as their overall degree of consistency, improved between 2005 and 2020. More recent plans were also more likely to mention the potential impacts of climate change on vulnerable groups. However, plans got worse over time in terms of detailing measures that particularly address vulnerable people, and very few cities involve children, people on low incomes, and the elderly when they develop their policies, or monitoring and evaluation processes. In relation to impact/risks and goals, cities listed substantially more impacts/risks than they did goals, suggesting little alignment between the two.

On average cities improved most in terms of goal setting, suggesting detailed and different measures, and setting out how plans would be implemented. The plans only slightly or barely improved concerning detailing future monitoring processes.

Dr Marta Olazabal, a coauthor of the study and senior researcher at BC3, said: “We have tracked urban adaptation planning documents in 27+1 countries in Europe, plans that got published and/or approved between 2005 and 2020. Our data showed how plans got better in aligning goals with impacts and risks, but this is still not done comprehensively. In addition, plans are not better at taking into account the needs of the most vulnerable, at facilitating implementation or at designing monitoring and evaluation systems that allow understanding the benefits (or unexpected negative effects) of implemented measures”.

“Our findings align with what others are observing in other regions worldwide, which means that, for example, more capacity building and support from higher governance levels is necessary to help cities in this quest”. Dr Olazabal added that “clear adaptation goals specific to each city and consistent plans facilitate good implementation which ultimately is what cities are failing to address”.

The study has led to the creation of a free, online Climate Change Adaptation Scoring tool which calculates ‘ADAptation plan Quality Assessment’ (ADAQA) indices for individual cities, thereby allowing local climate practitioners to check whether their plans are covering the right topics and to benchmark against others.

In addition, the components of the indices can be used to benchmark and fast-track improvements in the next generation of plans. The authors recommend that governments and agencies provide more resources, such as the ADAQA indices, to support cities and other governmental authorities in tracking and assessing their progress.

The full paper, Quality of urban climate adaptation plans over time, has been published in the Nature journal Urban Sustainability and it is available open-access from the journal website.


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Reckien D., Buzasi A., Olazabal M., Spyridaki N.-A., Eckersley P., Simoes S. G., Salvia M., Pietrapertosa F., Fokaides P., Goonesekera S. M., Tardieu L., Balzan M. V., de Boer C. L., De Gregorio Hurtado S., Feliu E., Flamos A., Foley A., Geneletti D., Grafakos S., Heidrich O., Ioannou B., Krook-Riekkola A., Matosovic M., Orru H., Orru K., Paspaldzhiev I., Rižnar K., Smigaj M., Szalmáné Csete M., Viguié V. y Wejs A. 2023 Quality of urban climate adaptation plans over time. npj Urban Sustainability 3 1–14 https://www.nature.com/articles/s42949-023-00085-1

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