SI Series #15: Urban Innovation in Climate Change

Urban centres are the greatest contributors to climate change. Worldwide, cities account for 78% of carbon emissions from human activities (Burch, Schroeder, Rayner & Wilson, 2013; Stern, 2007) and as the increase in population of people living in cities in developing counties is estimated to rise 13% from 2005 to 2030 (Stern, 2007), the effect will increase. In urban centres temperatures could rise greater than 4˚C by 2025 compared to pre-industrial levels, and in peak season, temperatures could be even as high as 6˚C to 8˚C (IPCC, 2014). The number of hot days could increase the urban heat island effect, which is an increase of temperature in cities compared to surrounding regions due to concentration of built structures, smog and other human activity. Climate change thus poses risks for humans in cities (and elsewhere). Increasing temperatures impose health risks, flooding can damage property and infrastructure, drought and water scarcity can increase water shortages and related diseases, and food security may be compromised (IPCC, 2014). Every sector of human life may be effected.

Mark Unrau

(Copyright Mark Unrau)

Indeed, climate change is a problem that cannot be neatly bound within one sector; all social systems have their impacts and will be impacted. Organisation of social structures in a large metropolitan area, like waste management for example, determine which standards are to be followed, which in turn influences how emissions from waste impact climate change. Decisions in urban centres are compartmentalized despite having a rather singular effect (GHG emissions). Thus, as Burch et al. points out, cities are “thus a multidimensional—multisector, multiactor, and multilevel—phenomenon” (2013, p. 824), which are unified by the complex social problem that all cities face.

As the UN report on Climate Change and Urbanization suggests (Satterthwaite, 2008), there needs to be development and adaptation in urban centres, in conjunction. As cities develop, development goals need to include climate change mitigation strategies, via sustainable and whole systems thinking. When this occurs, local governments will be more apt to be adaptive to the continuing implications of climate change, before the impacts create imposing repercussions. National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) and community-based adaptation creates initial starting points for policy and action oriented programming. However, just these two approaches “leaves out the key role of local government (although some community-based adaptation has involved local governments). There need to be local LAPAs and city CAPAs to underpin and drive innovations in NAPAs” (Satterhwaite, 2008, p. 17).

Thus, local governments in concert with community, provincial and federal efforts can create spaces for a diversity of social innovations that can be then enacted by local governments and non-profit organisations. The adaptive capacity of urban centres needs to happen as a concert effort, i.e., an effort of all actors in the system, with a focus on social innovations of development strategies. This may mean that all sectors need to reconsider the relationship that social structures have with the cityscape. In other words: how can we individually and collectively grow our cities adaptively, considering climate change?

– Mike Unrau


Burch, S.; Schroeder, H.; Rayner, S. & Wilson, J. (2013). Novel multisector networks and entrepreneurship: The role of small business in the multilevel governance of climate change. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 31, 822-840.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014). Climate change 2014: Synthesis report, summary for policymakers. Contribution of working groups I, II and III to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from

Satterthwaite, D. & the United Nations Expert Group Meeting On Population Distribution, Urbanization, Internal Migration and Development (2008). Climate change and urbanization: Effects and implications for urban governance. United Nations Secretariat, New York, United States. Retrieved from

Stern, N. H., & Great Britain. (2007). The economics of climate change: The Stern review. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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