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Summers in cities are getting hotter. Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and severe, impacting the environment and human life, pushing natural and man-made systems beyond their ability to adapt. To protect our ecosystems and communities, we need to think about holistic solutions that tackle urban heat stress, making sure no one is left behind. But where do we start?
We don’t have to look very far to see the impact of climate change. In the Netherlands where I live, we experienced a sweltering heatwave this summer. Highest temperatures were recorded in the city of Maastricht at 39.5°C. The UK too saw a record-breaking heatwave with temperatures over 40°C, with nationwide advisories issued to citizens on how to face the high temperature. Delhi hit even higher temperatures, recording 49°C in May; and several US regions – most recently, California – declared ‘heat emergencies’ urging people to stay indoors, or opening community centers for citizens looking to cool off.
Feeling the heat
Though cities today account for less than 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, they produce more than 68 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, all of which contribute to pushing up temperatures. With an additional 2.5 billion people projected to reside in urban areas by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions will only increase – and temperatures will keep rising - if nothing changes.
Cities are also tremendous absorbers and retainers of heat. The ‘urban heat island effect’, caused by human activity and design of our public spaces, is set to become more pronounced than ever. And our cities today are just not designed to cope with this rising heat.
So, what can we do to ensure that cities continue adapting to protect the over two billion people – about a quarter of the world’s population1 – that are estimated to be at risk of urban heat exposure? The answer lies in finding innovative, sustainable and inclusive zero-carbon solutions to tackle rising urban heat stress. But this will only be possible if we work collectively to come up with some creative and adaptive plans – both in the short and long term. We have some solutions...
Leadership and community engagement for better preparedness today
Extreme heat exposure is highly unequal and severely impacts the urban elderly, those with underlying health conditions, and marginalized communities. To truly make sure no one’s left behind, local authorities and communities need to work together for solutions that benefit all.
We can start the fightback with swift action at a grassroots level, creating supportive environments through activities like buddy systems to check up on elderly and those suffering from chronic diseases, distribution of water bottles, and community events in cooler public spaces that can provide respite particularly for families and those experiencing loneliness. This needs to go hand-in-hand and be supported by municipal programs that put ‘heat stress’ at the top of the city’s agenda. Clear leadership roles are critical at this level to provide the necessary support and elevate outreach activities. Many US cities recognize this and have hired chief heat officers to help urgently navigate the response to longer stretches of excessive heat, that have become more common over the years.