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The amount of money going towards adapting to climate change in 10 of the world’s biggest cities has increased by a quarter in recent years, according to new research.

Against a backdrop of a global recession, this might seem like good news. But representing at most 0.33 percent of a city’s wealth, resilience-building is still a small fraction of total spending.

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The new study, published Monday in Nature Climate Change, also highlights the “staggering” difference between adaptation spending in developed and developing countries, with the city of New York spending 35 times more per person to protect its residents than Lagos.

The disparity is “proof of concept” that money is being spent preferentially to protect physical capital over people, say the authors.

Building Resilience

More than half of the world’s population are classified as living in cities. That figure is projected to rise to 66 percent by 2050. Cities face a wide range of climate change risks, from heat waves and flooding in densely packed cities to sea level rise in coastal cities.

Jakarta, Indonesia: Citizens can not move due to flooding in Cipinang Melayu, Jakarta, on Feb. 28. The monsoon season, which took place in Jakarta in recent days have caused widespread flooding in several regions in Indonesia. Photo credit Dasril Roszandi / NurPhoto
Jakarta, Indonesia: Citizens can not move due to flooding in Cipinang Melayu, Jakarta, on Feb. 28. The monsoon season, which took place in Jakarta in recent days have caused widespread flooding in several regions in Indonesia. Photo credit Dasril Roszandi / NurPhoto

Exactly how much cities around the world are doing to make themselves more resilient is hard to establish. Even more difficult to pinpoint is how those efforts are changing over time.

The authors of today’s study built a database from more than 1,000 sources of information about how much money is being spent on activities related to climate change adaptation. This covers everything from building coastal defenses to urban drainage to planting trees.

Lead author on the study, Dr. Lucien Georgeson from University College London, explained to Carbon Brief:

“We started with an overall definition including all economic activities related to adaptation across the ten economic sectors in the study. From there, we isolated the activities that could be directly related to climate change.”

Take the example of the Thames Barrier, says Prof. Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at University College London and co-author on the new study. He tells Carbon Brief:

“Building the Thames Barrier was to protect against weather events, particularly storm surges … That cost would not be counted as an adaptation to climate change. However, the Environment Agency has planned to retrofit it to increase the actual gate height by an extra meter. This is a clear adaptation to increased sea level rise in the future.”

Importantly, the researchers looked at spending in both the public and private sectors in order to build up a complete picture from the bottom up. As Georgeson tells Carbon Brief:

“The underlying thing that we wanted to achieve was to create a baseline for measuring whether action to adapt to climate change in different cities around the world is improving or not and whether there are any disparities between cities.”

Huge Disparity

First, the study takes a global view, estimating that a total of £223bn is being spent on climate change adaptation around the world. This is equivalent to 0.38 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).

To see how adaptation spending varies in different regions, the authors focused on 10 “megacities,” defined here as cities with populations of more than three million or a GDP within the top 25 of cities or both.

The authors selected New York, London, Paris, Beijing, Mexico City, São Paulo, Mumbai, Jakarta, Lagos and Addis Ababa to represent a range of regions, socioeconomic states and climates.

On first glance, the picture appears encouraging. Total adaptation spending across the 10 cities has risen by around 27 percent in the last seven years, from £4.86bn in 2008/9 to £6.15bn in 2014/15. Almost all cities show growth despite the economic recession, Georgeson tells Carbon Brief:

“In a nutshell, there has been a broadly positive trend in adaptation to climate change … Most cities have fairly stable growth, so that’s a positive sign.”

But within lies a much more complex picture. Adaptation spending varied enormously across the cities, the paper explains. In 2014/15, total spend ranged from £15m in Addis Ababa to £1.6bn in New York, as the chart below on the left shows.

Public and private sector spending on climate change adaptation and resilience in ten megacities in 2014/15. Expressed as total spend in millions of pounds (left) and as a percentage of the city’s GDP (GDP; right). Photo credit: Georgeson
Public and private sector spending on climate change adaptation and resilience in ten megacities in 2014/15. Expressed as total spend in millions of pounds (left) and as a percentage of the city’s GDP (GDPc; right). Photo credit: Georgeson

Expressed as a proportion of wealth, a huge disparity exists between cities at different stages of economic development. Megacities in developed countries spend around 0.22 percent of their GDP on building resilience to climate change, compared to 0.15 percent for cities in developing countries.

The one stark outlier to this pattern is Beijing, the paper notes.

Spending 0.33 percent of its GDP on climate change adaptation and resilience, this is far more than any other developing or developed city. The authors attribute this to strong centralized policy frameworks in China, with a national plan in place since 2007 covering adaptation in both urban and rural areas.

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