A river runs through it, but drought and fire are among the critical threats facing the city of Vitacura, home to 85,000 people on the periphery of Chile’s capital, Santiago. Five years on from a forest fire and regularly recording declining rainfall, the local government is wary of the health, safety and operational risks that climate change seems to be bringing. But what can leaders do to prioritize next steps?
In 2021, hundreds of Global Covenant of Mayors (GCoM) signatories around the world reported severe climate-related events with significant impact on livelihoods, physical environments and financial investments. Exacerbated by pervasive socioeconomic inequalities and the COVID-19 pandemic, the rapidly evolving consequences of climate change are stretching the ability of local governments to respond. Decision-makers are facing pressure to react quickly and to be more proactive in bolstering resilience and adaptive capacity.
While new methods of collecting and analyzing data can help bridge gaps in climate action planning, getting them into the hands of city leaders remains a challenge. Insufficient quality and quantity of data at the local level, together with variations in city capacity – especially across developing countries – are longstanding barriers to life-saving risk and vulnerability assessments.
A prototype data tool developed by WRI with GCoM aims to help address this challenge for city-level climate adaptation planners. Though it requires further development, the prototype demonstrates how technology and design can unlock decision-oriented data on risks, hazards, exposure and vulnerability at local scales that could help protect communities and accelerate adaptation action.
Adaptation Insights for Any Point on Earth
Envisioned as an expansion of the Data Portal for Cities climate mitigation tool, the prototype adaptation tool leverages global models and datasets and packages them as indicators and visualizations designed to connect with city decision-makers’ adaptation planning processes.
Once fully implemented and deployed, the tool could allow a city staffer anywhere in the world to see which climate hazards pose the greatest threats; identify the societal sectors and public amenities that face the greatest exposure; locate areas where climate risk intersects with demographic vulnerability; and report hazard risks along with economic and social exposure in alignment with the GCoM Common Reporting Framework.
We designed this prototype to have rich, decision-relevant interactivity. Users can easily ask specific questions and be given the most reliable answers available.
A city infrastructure engineer concerned about heat damage to bridges, for example, can select a critical temperature threshold and see the probability of the city reaching that temperature in any future year.
A budget officer responsible for allocating investment across several departments can apply the exposure analysis to understand the societal sectors and municipal service sites most exposed to extreme heat, flooding or other hazards.
Assessing and Addressing the Adaptation Data Need
Design of the prototype was grounded in a recently published GCoM white paper and a series of in-depth interviews with four pilot cities across the GCoM alliance. The white paper was the culmination of surveys, interviews, practitioner expertise and expert synthesis. The results highlighted the need to connect cities to the tools and data they need to take climate action across the entire city climate-action journey, from data collection to implementation to monitoring.
Our interviews with the four cities, each with their own development, demographic and climatic features, helped us understand the risks and hazards they face and the value of a tool that can bridge the gaps on risk, hazard and exposure data. They reinforced the idea that adaptation data at a locally relevant scale remains a priority for cities. Moreover, the ability for an adaptation-focused tool to address region- and city-specific contexts – including the future possibility of allowing users to upload locally generated data – also brings significant value to local governments looking to act on adaptation and resilience.
Hazard-projection resources from NASA (NEX-GDDP and LHASA) and WRI’s Aqueduct, as well as remote sensing from Landsat, provide relevant data to the prototype at spatial resolutions that range from 25 kilometers down to 30 meters. Demographic modeling from the Worldpop consortium and crowdsourced locations of urban amenities from OpenStreetMap then allowed us to understand spatial exposure.
While identifying useful datasets was relatively simple, converting the data into formats most useful in adaptation planning was a challenge. Cities can use specific indicators more easily than raw satellite data and climate projections, so WRI developed a method to estimate the probability of specific indicator magnitudes — for example, the probability of a drought of 90 days or longer — for any location in the world, for any year through 2100. In all, we prototyped 10 indicators addressing different aspects of heat, cold, precipitation, flooding and landslide risk, and we expect to refine and expand the indicator set when we implement the tool at scale.
Toward Solutions at Scale
GCoM and WRI are looking at a number of strategies for putting this tool into the hands of city decision-makers. One logical deployment strategy would be to integrate it into the current Data Portal for Cities. The result would be a one-stop web application supporting climate planning for both decarbonization and adaptation. The implementation process would include finalizing the indicators in collaboration with city staffers, working with prospective users to refine the user interface and visualizations, and building simple connections to other adaptation-planning tasks, like policy selection, co-benefit estimation and monitoring progress.
However the tool is deployed, the goal is to help cities and local governments like Vitacura navigate the universe of climate-action planning tools, helping users access data that is both actionable and easily inserted into local government workflows with little training or background. This is critical in the context of a climate crisis where according to the Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events are jeopardizing progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Ultimately, the best choice for each city will be unique to the local physical, socioeconomic and political context, but as the need for climate adaptation planning increases, we must find more ways to get actionable data into community leaders’ hands to inform these decisions.
Benjamin Jance is Head of Research and Innovation with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.
Ted Wong is Research and Project Associate for Data & Tools at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.