Advancing resilience in cities, towns and villages through knowledge: Key findings on climate change adaptation in human settlements

Published: 23rd May 2018 10:37Last Updated: 12th November 2018 14:47
man carrying bamboo, Jakarta

A man carrying bamboo, an affordable construction material for most of the urban poor in Jakarta. Photo by Cak-cak, via Flickr.

Adapting to climate change in human settlements

Adapting to climate change in human settlements is one of the pressing issues of our times when talking about sustainable and inclusive development. Why? Since 1950, the number of people living in towns and cities has grown more than five times. This means that, by 2050, two thirds of humanity will live in urban areas, and over 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean.

As urban areas in developing and least developed countries are growing exponentially, the pace of urban growth may pose serious challenges for sustainable development. It is well known that rapid urbanization jeopardizes government’s capability to cope with the housing needs of the poorest people, contributing to the development of informal settlements. This becomes even more tricky when knowing that 25% of the world’s urban population lives in slums which are the most deprived and excluded form of informal settlements.

During the Bonn Climate Change Conference, taking place from 30 April to 10 May 2018, and as an effort to tackle this problem by advancing resilience in cities, towns and villages through knowledge, the UNFCCC Secretariat, through the Nairobi work programme on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change (NWP), published the report “Adaptation in human settlements: key findings and way forward” (Download available from the right-hand column).

This report comes after the Subsid​iary Body for Science and Technological Advice (SBSTA) gave the NWP the mandate to synthesize existing knowledge in the area of human settlements a​nd adaptation in May 2016.

Parties, NWP partner organizations and other relevant entities submitted relevant information, recent activities and research related to human settlements, in particular, to the following areas:

Assessing sensitivity and vulnerability to climate change

The first step towards assessing sensitivity and vulnerability of human settlements to climate change is to understand the concepts. The report identifies sensitivity as a component of vulnerability: “Sensitivity is the degree to which a system responds, either adversely or beneficially, to climate-related stimuli. Vulnerability is the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes”.

One of the key findings of this area is that vulnerability assessments need to be multi and interdisciplinary relying on multiple methods and considering the cultural, social, economic and environmental features of settlements and their ecosystem services. It is important that these assessments are fine-grained and locally focused, and that they always identify the causes of gender-differentiated vulnerability. It is also necessary to understand that some social groups tend to be more vulnerable such as infants, the elderly, those with diseases, injuries or disabilities and marginalized groups. There are also gender differentials in vulnerability, owing to differences in gender roles and power relations.

Vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning should be seen as an inclusive process. An inclusive adaptation planning process, that includes private sector (insurance companies), researchers, individual members of the communities and community organizations, is best suited to addressing the vulnerability of human settlements. It should also consider traditional and indigenous knowledge and conventional scientific knowledge.

Organizations, such as UN-Habitat and Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), have developed different toolkits and guides that are freely available to support national and local governments in comprehensively assessing their vulnerabilities related to extreme weather and slow onset events.

Integrating short- and long-term climate considerations (including extreme and slow onset events) into adaptation planning

As identified in the report, if we efficiently integrate short- and long-term climate considerations into adaptation planning, we would be able to avoid maladaptation, to move beyond strengthening coping capacities to building long-term adaptive capacity, and to minimize minimizing loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change. However, it is important to consider that adaptation to climate change needs to be an iterative, cross-sectoral and open-ended planning and implementation process, in order to support long-term decision-making.

The role of national governments in supporting local-level adaptation

Recognizing the importance of national and local governments is crucial to efficiently scale-up climate action. Linking local and national planning, and national government support for local adaptation, emphasizing on human settlements, is needed in national adaptation strategies. Vertical integration between national and subnational governments needs to be continuously strengthened.

 However, we also need to recognize that national governments are responsible for creating enabling policy, legal and regulatory frameworks for local governments to develop and implement adaptation plans.

Because of the need for data, knowledge and education on adaptation and resilience, national governments should support national research. Research institutions and universities could help produce locally relevant adaptation solutions and contribute to building resilient communities and human settlements.

City-to-city partnerships on climate change

City-to-city partnerships, which includes some city networks, have helped to improve the understanding of climate risks and adaptation methods and sustain their motivation for adaptation efforts between their members. Networks can support cities to move away from a solely technical approach and envision a more transformational approach while identifying trade-offs that determine risk and vulnerability.  However, various challenges were identified in the report, mostly related to insufficient funding in the South.


Grey Bush and Congo Town - informal settlements in Freetown. Photo by Dylan Lowthian/UNDP, via. Flickr.

Download the report

The report can be downloaded for free in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian.

More information on the activities on human settlements and adaptation developed by the Nairobi work programme are also available on the following link: http://www4.unfccc.int/sites/NWP/Pages/HS-page.aspx