COP27 Dispatch: As Climate Impacts Grow, Cities Explore Paths to Adaptation

Three experts on cities discuss the efforts of urban communities to navigate climate change. 

Experts from the University of Pennsylvania are on the ground at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. In this special series from Energy Policy Now, they share their observations from the global climate conference and insights into key issues under negotiation.

Eugenie Birch, Bill Burke-White, and Mauricio Rodas of the University of Pennsylvania explore the challenges that climate change, and effects ranging from extreme heat to flooding, present to cities in an era of rapid urbanization. They also discuss how cities are acting in concert to address climate impacts.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and recording from COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Over the two weeks of COP, I’m talking with experts from the University of Pennsylvania on a number of priority issues that are being discussed at this year’s Global Climate Change conference. In this episode, I’ll be talking with three experts on cities and their efforts to address climate change.

My guests are Eugenie Birch, Bill Burke-White, and Mauricio Rodas. Our topic for discussion is Cities and Their Role at COP27. Genie, Bill and Mauricio, welcome to the podcast. Genie, let’s start with you. Could you introduce yourself to our listeners? And your role at Penn?

Eugenie Birch: Sure, Andy. I’m Genie Birch. I’m the Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research in the Department of City and Regional Planning in the Weitzman School, and I also co-direct the Penn Institute for Urban Research, which is the university-wide center that discusses issues related to sustainable development in cities.

Stone: Bill, how about you?

Bill Burke-White: Thanks. I’m Bill Burke-White. I’m a Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law. I was the Inaugural Director of Perry World House, the university’s International Affairs Institute.

Stone: And Mauricio, how about you?

Mauricio Rodas: My name is Mauricio Rodas. I am the former mayor of Quito, Ecuador. I am a Visiting Scholar at the Penn Institute for Urban Research, the Perry World House, and the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. I am co-teaching two courses this semester, one with Professor Genie Birch on cities’ climate finance, and another one with Professor Bill Burke-White at the law school on the role of national governance at the COP process.

Stone: Thanks to the three of you for taking your time out of this very busy week to talk to the podcast. I appreciate it. Genie, I wonder if we could start with you. Could you give us the context of cities within the global effort to address climate change?

Birch: Sure, Andy. Most people are not aware of the fact that cities are very important in the context of the global concerns. In particular, cities produce 70% of the greenhouse gases. They also have 57% of the world’s population, and lastly, they produce some 70% of the global GDP. So they are important.

Stone: Bill, let’s go to you. Where do cities fit from a legal perspective in international climate discussions?

Burke-White: Well, the short answer is, “Nowhere,” as a matter of law. If you’ve been watching the news about COP27, what you see is Joe Biden or other heads of state coming to be part of national delegations led by the foreign ministries or secretaries of state. That’s because this is an international negotiation, a negotiation between national governments. Cities — well, they aren’t national governments, and they don’t have any formal role at these negotiations. The negotiations are between national governments.

But as Genie said, cities are critical, both to the sum of the causes of climate change, and certainly to the implementation of solutions. So what’s happened over the last ten or fifteen years is that cities have become a very visible presence at COP, not in the formal negotiations, but in all of the events surrounding those negotiations, informing national government delegations, raising concerns, being part of a much broader set of conversations. And it is really only in the last few years that governments have recognized how critical cities are going to be to any of the solutions that address mitigation or adaptation to climate change.

And so here at COP27, there are mayors from cities around the world. There are city officials. There are people like us, academics, studying cities, trying to figure out how to help cities get a bigger voice in the negotiations. Mayors are demanding to be part of those formal conversations, and I think we’re really beginning to see some breakthroughs, where cities now are being heard. They may not have a formal vote, but they are being heard, and now we have to make sure that they are looped into the solutions that need to be implemented coming out of these meetings.

Stone: Genie, let’s jump back to you for a moment. What has been happening here at COP with some national governments and cities?

Birch: Well, as Bill said, there are a tremendous number of representatives of urbanists, of cities here at the conference, and they’ve had a number of roles. Some of them have been actually engaged in some of the high-level events — roundtables and so forth. The mayor of Kilimani was asked to address the global stake-takers conference about how important cities were, as they think about what’s going to come next, after they assess what the NDCs have to say.

The Kalarati [?] was there, who’s an expert on all sorts of things with regard to cities and was also asked to address the members of SAIF [?]. So those things have been happening on the official level. On the unofficial level, in the area called the Blue Zone, where delegates have pavilions, the countries have pavilions, and various governmental organizations have pavilions, it has been a buzz of activity.

In particular, there have been two pavilions that have hosted so many of these things. First is the Resilience Hub that was created actually in response to the mayors and other urban folks who said, “We need to be talking about cities,” and the spokesmen for them have been the city champions that each country who’s hosting appoints to talk about how to bring non-stakeholders into these conversations. So Resilience Hub has been a center of all sorts of talks and announcements.

And the second place is the Multi-Action Hub, which is actually sponsored by Scotland and ICLEI this year, and they’ve been having quite a few events, as well. And finally, country pavilions have been hosting a number of things. For example Mauricio and I will be speaking on resilience at the Thai pavilion next week. The mayor of Tokyo talked about what they were doing with regard to building a hydrogen pipeline in Tokyo, where Macquarie, the big infrastructure and investment company talked about an enormously important pilot project that they put together, to talk about EVs for heavy vehicles in India and how they finance that with funded finance. And it’s important that private sector is stepping up here.

And the nations have been doing things, as well. For example, the United States announced something called “SCALE.” It is the Subnational Climate Leaders Exchange. Musk mentioned for the first time in our State Department there is an appointment of an ambassador for subnational government, and this is a landmark occasion in the state department. We’ll see how that works out, but the first project we have is this SCALE.

And then the people from the IPCC provided a wonderful session last night on the summary for urban policy-makers that took those three — I don’t know how many thousands of pages those reports are — and digested them down to three volumes of what is key for cities, both in adaptation, mitigation, and also the science base of all that.

The Rock-Arsht Center — Mauricio will talk more about that later — announced some very important things on heat. The Center for Technology and Networks and Centers exhibited in the Thai conversation how modeling for scenarios for cities is very important, as well as how technology is being used in developing good comprehensive plans. And at the grassroots level, Sheela Patel is here with an amazing new activity called “Roofs Over Our Heads,” thinking about how to do climate-resilient housing in informal settlements. Remember, about a billion people live in informal settlements today, and they are very vulnerable to the problems of climate change.

There have been about three messages that have come forward, I would say: The importance of urban infrastructure in this project of both reducing greenhouse gases and adaptation, the importance of subsidiarity, that is the closeness and the agreement of all levels of government, from national to state to local. And lastly, the importance of nature-based solutions in providing some solutions to what we need to do in the future.

So it has been a busy time this week, and many more things are happening next week, culminating with the first urban ministerial meeting on November 17th. This has never occurred at a COP before, and though cities and subnational governments are not active, they’ve brought in the ministers who are in charge of cities and subnational government to make an appearance. So this is a landmark occasion, too.

Stone: Genie, thanks for running down all that. So much has been going on. We’re only half-way through. So much is yet to come. Mauricio, I want to turn to you. You focus on heat’s impacts on urban environments. Can you tell us what you’re seeing here at COP?

Rodas: Well, first of all I think it’s important to highlight that the issue of adaptation has been getting more and more attention during the past few years, which is very important because there was a clear imbalance between mitigation and a patient focus before. So we need to change that.

And part of that trend is also witnessing how there’s a greater attention on the intersection between adaptation and cities. How can cities adapt better to climate change? A very important piece of this has to do with extreme heat. Why? Because extreme heat is a climate-driven hazard that kills more people than all others combined. It is actually called “the silent killer.” Why? Because even though it is not visually shocking as a hurricane or as a flooding that you watch on the news, it kills actually more people than those hazards.

Just to give you a figure, in the US alone, heat kills 20 times more people than hurricanes every year. And it is not only deadly. It is also affecting the economy and jobs. According to a report published by the Arsht-Rock Center, in 2020, there were estimated losses of around 100 billion dollars because of a reduction in productivity due to extreme heat. So these are the kinds of effects that extreme heat is producing in general.

Now, why is it so important to be addressed in cities is because extreme heat is particularly severe in cities, due to the heat urban island effect. Because of urban infrastructure, pavements, vehicle emissions, and of course much less vegetation in urban areas, when compared to rural areas, you can have temperatures being higher, between 4 to 6 degrees Celsius when you compare a central urban area with a rural area. That’s why all of these impacts must be urgently tackled in cities.

And in that regard, there have been a few interesting initiatives to support cities to address extreme heat-related risks. Arsht-Rock has been doing some work in that regard, for example through the City Champions for Health Action Initiative, through interesting and innovative actionable solutions that go from naming and ranking heat waves to implementing market shade and actions in cities like Freetown, Sierra Leone in Africa.

Now even though extreme heat is particularly severe, as I said before in cities, the good news is that it is also cost-effective to address in cities. There are many simple solutions that can be implemented with great benefits for urban populations. For example, by implementing initiatives like cool roofs, by having white reflective painting on roofs in buildings, you can lower inside temperatures between 4 to 5 degree Celsius. You have things like green roofs, cool pavements, and of course green spaces. Greenery has proven to be extremely effective to lower temperatures, to provide shading to people, and therefore to protect them from extreme heat-related risks which unfortunately are affecting the most vulnerable populations. Who dies by heat? They are literally the homeless, pregnant women are particularly affected by heat, so that’s why we need to be particularly cautious in thinking how to protect these vulnerable groups.

Of course these actions demand finance, and as you know, cities unfortunately have to face an international financial system that is not friendly for cities. It was designed for countries, and cities have very complicated challenges to overcome in order to access international finance, in general to tackle climate change, and particularly also with regard to extreme heat. So things like the launch of the Cool Capital Stack a couple of days ago at the Resilience Hub that Genie mentioned is good news. A new financial facility to exclusively be channeled towards implementing extreme heat-related actions in cities. That’s the kind of thing that cities need this time around, and I will add to the three very important messages that Genie mentioned at the end of her intervention. The fact that in general cities’ climate finance is something that world leaders, heads of international financial institutions, international organizations, the private sector, serious society and philanthropy should be focusing more and more, because if we understand the pivotal role that cities are playing in addressing climate change, like Genie mentioned, they are responsible for more than 70% of CO2 emissions. So without effective work from cities, it will be impossible for countries to meet their NDCs. It will be impossible for countries to meet the Paris Agreement.

Now in order for cities to play that effective role, they need resources. They need between 4 to 5 trillion dollars per year from now until 2030 to turn their infrastructure into a climate resilient one. And that will be impossible to achieve under the current financial institutions. That’s why it’s so important to foster important reforms to that international financial architecture, to make it more cities-friendly.

Stone: So Genie, let me ask you — to finish up here, are there any concrete developments or announcements that you might expect to see by the end of this COP?

Birch: Andy, I don’t think we’ll see any concrete announcements, because as mentioned earlier, cities are not part of the negotiations. But we will see things that will affect cities, and that’s particularly the loss and damages conversations happening — if that goes anywhere. But I do want to make a point. The conversations at COP have been quite separate, thinking about adaptation and mitigation. It’s separate channels. But when you look at cities, these things are happening together. For example, when we talked about the responses to heat or dealing with infrastructure, dealing with water or transportation — all of them have a piece that’s part of mitigation and part of adaptation.

Let’s take mass transit, for example. Moving to mass transit will, of course, mitigate situations because you get people out of their cars. But at the same time, if you build it in a proper way, you’ll be adapting the mobility system of a city, because you’re moving into an area that is resistant to flooding or resistant to heat. So that’s a point I think we have to make about cities and their importance in being the focus of both of these things happening together.

The other thing I’d like to say is that practically every day, there is a new paper, there is new evidence, there are new discoveries that are coming out here at COP. And we will bring these home to Penn, and we’ll use them for instructional materials. We’ll use them to craft the kind of policy recommendations that we, as academicians, can do and hopefully make a difference as we think about how we might influence policy-makers through our writings and policy creations and so forth. More importantly, how we can influence the future leaders of the world, our students.

Burke-White: Yes, I would just add to that that we have to think about this as a long-term process. There are things I’m looking for this week as we see information about how the various funding mechanisms that are part of the UNFCCC system are evolving, and will cities have access to them? But really for cities, this is a long-term game. It’s about how do you get your voice heard so that over the years cities can play a bigger role, both in shaping debates around climate change, and then in actually implementing solutions to them.

Rodas: Yes, and I will add to that that even though probably there are some people that are not as much of an optimist as I am regarding the role of cities at COP, I must say that I have been witnessing during the past few years a greater participation from cities at COP. That’s very clear. You see more and more mayors attending COP. You see more and more city officials. You see more and more urban-related sessions and events at COP. And that’s exciting.

Of course now it is about to translate that trend into concrete, actionable solutions for cities to tackle climate change.

Stone: Genie, Bill, and Mauricio, thanks very much for talking. We really appreciate it.

Thanks for listening to this special episode of the Energy Policy Now podcast, recorded at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Check out Energy Policy Now on the Kleinman Center website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. To keep up with research and events from the Kleinman Center, visit our website.

Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now, and have a great day.  


Eugenie Birch

Lawrence C. Nussdorf Chair of Urban Research and Education
Eugénie L. Birch is co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, Lawrence C. Nussdorf Chair of Urban Research and Education, and chair of the Graduate Group in City and Regional Planning.

Bill Burke-White

Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School
Bill Burke-White is a Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and an expert on U.S. foreign policy, multilateral institutions, and international law.

Mauricio Rodas

Former Mayor of Quito, Ecuador
Mauricio Rodas is the Former Mayor of Quito, Ecuador, and a 2019-2020 visiting scholar with the Kleinman Center, Perry World House and Penn Institute for Urban Research.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.