We need to move forward on resilience, with pace – not perfection

By Climate Champions | February 20, 2024

Guest interview: Emma Howard Boyd CBE, Chair of the London Climate Resilience Review

In January, the London Climate Resilience Review, an independent review commissioned by the Mayor of London, published an interim report. Emma Howard Boyd CBE, the chair of the Review and Race to resilience Global Ambassador shared her insights on the urgent need to prepare London and other cities for extreme weather.

Why was the London Climate Resilience Review initiated?

The London Climate Resilience Review was commissioned by the Mayor to investigate the impact of the extreme weather events that London has experienced in recent years – specifically the widespread flooding that took place in the summer of 2021, followed by the heat wave of 2022, which triggered a major blaze.

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change advised in early 2022 that we would not expect to experience 40°C temperatures in the Capital for another decade, but by the summer we were already hitting those temperatures. The Mayor of London wanted to understand our preparedness for the range of climate impacts that London – and other cities, both in the UK and around the world – are currently experiencing.

What are the key findings of the Interim report?

Firstly, our overall assessment is that London is underprepared for the climate hazards that the city is experiencing now, but also expecting in coming years. Heat is a particular focus of the Review. London only very recently experienced extreme heat and everything that goes with that – including the ‘urban heat effect’- when dense concentrations of pavements, buildings, and other surfaces absorb and retain more heat than areas close to natural spaces. Heat is a critical area where we need to ramp up investment, activities and plans. We’re delighted that our recommendation for London to hold a ‘heat exercise’ has been accepted by the Mayor – and that will take place in June this year. It follows a similar heat exercise in Paris last October, to understand how Paris would cope with 50°C heat.

A significant amount of work has previously been undertaken in London, such as the Thames Barrier which was completed in 1982 as part of a wider system of flood defences. However, an upgrade of the system is now urgently needed. The award-winning Thames Estuary 2100 program sets out the vision to boost London’s protection from sea level rise and storm surges. Last year, it was updated after ten years of monitoring in the Estuary and the data showed that over 100km of the Embankment west of the Thames Barrier – the City of London side – should be raised 15 years earlier (by 2050) than was previously anticipated. It’s clear that we need to act now to protect London from future sea-level rise and flooding.

 

“We need to move forward on resilience, with pace – not perfection”

 

Another key finding is that climate resilience often sits in environmental teams, whether that’s the public, or private sector. It’s clear that the responsibility for preparing for climate shocks should sit within the key decision-making parts of government – whether it’s national, local or other organizations – in order for cities to prepare effectively for climate change.

What can other cities learn from the London Review?

A lot of the work that’s been done around climate resilience shows that the whole world is underprepared – and we all have much to learn from each other. We’ve reviewed many resilience steps that other cities have taken – and these are very often focused on one particular climate hazard. It could be heat, or it might be flooding, or flash flooding. Very few cities today are fully prepared for the combination of hazards that climate change triggers.

Often the areas that have made the most progress are those countries that are literally one or two events away from total devastation. For example, in Asia – where temperatures are rising at twice the rate of the global average – the Mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), Bangladesh appointed the city’s first-ever “Chief Heat Officer” (CHO) last year. This resulted from the Global Champions for Heat Action platform, an initiative to help cities across the world tackle the challenges of extreme urban heat.

In fact, Climate Resilience for All, whose board I serve on, has just appointed Eugenia Kargbo, Freetown’s Chief Heat Officer, as Senior Heat Strategist for Africa. In this new role Eugenia will help CRA scale its heat work in Freetown – building agency and protection for the most vulnerable communities, especially women. This couldn’t be more timely given last week, it was 42C (107.6°F) in Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, and Mali. The intense threat of extreme heat across Africa is made worse by the effects of El Niño, which amplifies temperatures and triggers multiple health impacts, prolonged droughts, escalating the risk of water scarcity, crop failures and income loss.

Given the severity of cases like this, we can see that responsibility for climate change and resilience is moving to the heart of government and at the heart of financial decision-making – because it is vital to protecting lives and property. We hope that our work shines a spotlight on the activities and actions in cities around the world, so that we can learn from each other – and start moving with pace – and not perfection.

How can we overcome the resilience funding gap?

We need to look closely at the economic impacts of climate and weather-related events. In the US, in 2023 alone, there were 28 billion dollar climate and weather related events, with costs approaching USD 94 billion – and rising because not all of the data has yet been collected.

It’s clear that we should stop looking at adaptation and resilience in isolation – and understand that all of the investments that are being made around the world to achieve our ‘net zero’ and ‘nature positive’ commitments are at risk. If we don’t ensure that those investments are ready to withstand our changing climate, they could literally be washed away in a flood, or melt in a heatwave – becoming the stranded assets of the future. 

We need to relook at what we mean by ‘adaptation finance,’ and ensure that we have the right policies and enabling environments to assess all investments through the lens of climate resilience. That way – whether it is public finances or private sector finances – we will have a chance of meeting the goals and funding what is necessary today and in the future.

Why are poorest communities most vulnerable to climate impacts?

A: Our analysis of London and many cities and countries shows that, all over the world, the poorest and most vulnerable experience climate shocks first and hardest. That’s clear in London, where from a flooding perspective, often the poorest are living in basements. Similarly, when it comes to heatwaves, often the poorest are living in areas that do not benefit from natural cooling provided by green spaces, such as building tops.

We need to ensure that climate resilience works for everyone. The whole economy of a city depends on everybody living there, including key workers, being provided for from a climate resilience perspective. Looking through the lens of a just transition often the most impactful resilience solutions are implemented at the community-level.

Why is it crucial for climate adaptation and resilience to be tackled alongside climate mitigation?

I was delighted when the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions launched the Race to Resilience campaign – not least because it’s an excellent opportunity to put adaptation and resilience up the agenda alongside the Race to Zero.

It’s becoming very evident given the almost daily occurrence of significant climate and weather-related events and their impacts on lives and livelihoods, that we have to strive for adaptation and resilience side-by-side – along with ‘net zero’ and ‘nature-positive’ – at every opportunity.

Often the governance arrangements of our cities and our countries means that adaptation and resilience sit off to one side. We need to bring adaptation and resilience into the heart of our decision-making at every single level. That way, we have a chance of making sure that we provide resilience – today and in the future – for people and for nature.  

How is technology being applied to the resilience challenge?

One of the things that London is looking carefully at is the use of early warning systems – such as flood alerts, which is something that the UK Environment Agency and the Met Office work together on. We’re looking at how good information can be spread to those most in need of it, in different settings and in different cities. Building the capacity of people to take action ahead of weather events is a massive opportunity. We’re seeing this happen now with the naming of heat waves, for example, or the use of micro insurance, plus apps that send information to workers out in the field who can respond by preparing for extreme weather. Early signals can make a real difference to the degree that we can respond to extreme weather events around the world.

What’s the most important priority for the resilience community?

We all need to focus on the pace at which we can turn our plans into delivery and implementation. We haven’t got a moment to lose and that urgency means that we must act with pace. We cannot wait for everything to be perfect. It’s been excellent to see the progress made by the Race to Resilience over the three years since it launched. It couldn’t be more urgent to put more heft behind that campaign and to raise the numbers of organizations and cities committed to the Race. After all, this is a race that we all have to win – and accelerate momentum as we head towards the next COP. I urge anybody and everyone to think about how they can work on the resilience agenda, through the Race to Resilience – and alongside the Race to Zero.

Emma Howard Boyd CBE, Chair, London Climate Resilience Review

Emma has had an extensive career in financial services at the forefront of the climate change, environmental and sustainable finance agenda. She was Chair of the Environment Agency and an ex-officio board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2016 to 2022. She is currently Chair of the Green Finance Institute, Chair of the London Climate Resilience Review and a Global Ambassador for Race to Zero and Race to Resilience.

Emma serves on several boards and advisory committees, including Climate Resilience for All, The Major Projects Association, Climate Arc and The European Climate Foundation. Emma was the UK Commissioner to the Global Commission on Adaptation from 2018 until its sunset in January 2021.

 

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