How ready for climate change is your town or city?

Many councils, like this driver, are unprepared for flooding. Matt Price/Flickr

More than half the world’s population now lives in cities or urban areas, which means our vulnerability to the impacts of climate change is tied up with cities’ ability to cope. Responsible for more than 70% of carbon emissions, it is increasingly understood that cities must lead in tackling these problems and adapt to changes in weather patterns. This has led to a proliferation of urban plans for climate change.

To gain some perspective on how well planned and implemented such plans are, we devised an Urban Climate Change Preparedness Score, which can be applied to other cities and countries, for comparative analysis. It charts progress against assessment, planning, action, and monitoring, for both adapting to climate change and mitigating its effects. This Preparedness Score allows a comparison of climate change strategies across urban areas, and makes a comparison against other cities here and abroad possible.

Typically, gauging a city’s planning and preparedness is based on questionnaires or interviews of city officials. Instead we compiled and assessed only agreed and published planning documents drawn up and released by town and city councils in order to gain an insight into how prepared the cities were. We analysed climate change strategies from 30 urban areas (representing around 28% of the UK population) and the results are published in the journal Climatic Change.

A map of climate change preparedness shows many towns and cities have a long way to go. Oliver Heidrich/Climatic Change

Typically, climate mitigation activities across all cities were more advanced than climate adaptation plans. Emissions reduction targets ranged from 10–80% (with differing baselines, timeframes and scopes, for defining and meeting these targets), and a similar wide range was observed for adaptation plans. A combination of incentives and regulation, such as signing up to the Covenant of Mayors, the Nottingham Declaration, or the Scottish and Welsh equivalents, seemed to stimulate more comprehensive strategies in many cities.

The measures planned or put in place ranged from the general - improving energy efficiency and energy savings - to the specific - electric cars for transport (eg, Newcastle), or heating generated from renewables like wind, biowaste or tidal power. Where possible cities built on existing infrastructure. For example, Coventry and Sheffield plan to build upon and improve existing waste-to-energy plant. However in London, proposals focus on decentralised infrastructures, such as district heating. Despite being recommended in planning guidance, only 15 cities proposed district heating in their climate change strategies.

Flood protection was the highest priority of measures to adapt to the affects of climate change, studied by 79% of cities, and urban planning and development was also seen as important. Councils are keen to identify areas were benefits overlap - green space in urban areas and shaded areas to lower heat levels (eg, in Lincoln), or encouraging better health through exercise (in Nottingham).

Overall, the highest scoring cities are Leicester, London and Manchester. They provide separate plans for adaptation and mitigation, integrate these plans with their core strategy, and provide regular reports and carbon footprints.

On the other hand, Derry in Northern Ireland and Wrexham in Wales only recently embarked on climate change planning and scored lowest. Although the councils consider climate change preparedness to be a performance criteria worth measuring, it has not yet implemented any planning or monitoring process to do so.

Generally, it seems that those cities which are required (for example Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow under Scottish Parliament legislation) or volunteer (such as through the Covenant of Mayors) to report on climate change are more advanced in their planning and implementation of strategies and score better. Conversely, among the weakest scores were Derry and Belfast in Northern Island, which has no statutory commitment equivalent to the Nottingham Declaration or Scottish or Welsh Climate Change Declarations.

As the causes and impacts of climate change do not fall neatly into the administrative boundaries of councils, it is clear that most policies will be more successful if implemented over broader areas and across boundaries. But local authorities are pivotal to achieving global climate targets, and this research reveals the missing, inconsistent and poorly planned policies that must be urgently addressed.