More Than Ever, We Need Cities to Protect Our Planet and Our People

Cities have a unique ability to address the complex nexus of social equity and climate change.

Climate change is a deeply social issue. Developing countries continue to bear the brunt of climate change; and in wealthy, developed nations, rising sea levels, air pollution, extreme weather events, and the many impacts of oil dependence disproportionately affect low-income, minority communities. In the wake of last week’s divisive election in the United States – the far-reaching implications of which we are yet to fully realize and understand – it’s clear we risk continued inaction on national level climate policy, and its impact on human rights, under a Trump presidency. This makes it more important than ever to showcase the utterly vital role of cities and local governments in protecting our planet and its most vulnerable people from the racially and socioeconomically disparate impacts of climate change. Within these cities we can find many answers to some of our most pressing – and frightening – global concerns.

Cities have a unique ability to address the complex nexus of social equity and climate change, as they are not subject to the same red-tape and gridlock as nations, they are often more connected to their constituents’ needs and desires, and decisions can have more immediate results. It is therefore urgent that cities and local governments actively address this fact. And the good news? They already are.

Released today, Cities100, a yearly report by Sustainia, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and Realdania, showcases 100 solutions to climate change from cities around the world, and this year a special focus has been given to solutions that address the overlap of climate change and social equity. Based on findings from last year’s Cities100 report and the growing trend of socially conscious climate action underway in the world’s urban settlements, we deemed the issue of social equity and climate change worthy of inclusion as a new solution category amongst the ten featured in this year’s edition. Even more encouragingly, solutions that address this duel challenge are not limited to only this sector but span many others, including finance and economic development, and building energy efficiency.


A prime example of a city tackling CO2 emissions and social justice in tandem comes, fittingly, from the United States’ capital, Washington, D.C. – home of the White House. In an effort to reduce energy use and protect those most in need, the District has begun allocating property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing to a local YWCA which hosts 82 units of affordable housing for homeless women in transition in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The financing covers crucial energy upgrades to lighting, heating, and plumbing systems which will reduce the building’s energy consumption by 25 percent. Importantly, this model enables rents to remain low enough so the property can stay designated as public affordable housing for years to come.

While the United States now faces an acute and urgent need to propel local climate action, targeting the social inequities of climate change is certainly not just an American phenomenon. Seoul is another city leading the way in protecting its most at-risk citizens. In 2015, the South Korean capital launched a partnership program that encourages businesses and universities to reduce energy use. This saved energy spending is then funneled into a fund that, so far, has financed critical energy efficiency upgrades in 1,300 of Seoul’s low-income households and trains unemployed residents as energy consultants.

Tshwane, South Africa, is another example from our publication of a local government working to ensure that its vulnerable residents are prepared for, and protected against, the long term effects of climate change. Taking an approach to address its peri-urban population – those who live on the edge of the city and the countryside and operate in both spheres – the Tshwane Food and Energy Centre is pooling small scale farmers into a cooperative, thereby improving food security for both farmers and the region as a whole and providing a necessary income-generating opportunity.

These are just three of the 100 city solutions we have featured in this year’s publication that are taking direct action to improve the livelihoods of their vulnerable populations. And while climate action of any type often brings with it immense social, economic, and health benefits for society, it is becoming increasingly apparent that major societal benefits typically don’t trickle down to the most vulnerable on their own. It’s inspiring to see how many cities are aware of this, and are taking targeted, direct action in order to protect those that are uniquely at risk from volatile weather, rising energy costs, and worsening air and water quality.

I believe that Cities100 offers much-needed hope – and evidence – that local and regional governments will serve as some of the most important leaders on climate action in the coming years. And rather than allocating challenges into separate silos, they are acknowledging and addressing the overlap between complex issues such as social equity and climate change. In disheartening times, it is important to find and recognize inspiration. For those of us living in urban environments, especially the 61 cities showcased in Cities100, we needn’t look far.


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