City climate plans are improving but still neglect vulnerable people

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Most local authorities are not considering the needs of vulnerable people sufficiently when planning for climate change, according to a study of more than 300 European cities. A recent study led by the University of Twente has found that only 167 out of 327 European cities had full urban adaptation plans by the end of 2020 - with most found in the UK, followed by Poland, France, and Germany. While, in general, plans improved between 2005 and 2020, they got worse over time in terms of detailing measures that particularly address vulnerable people. The researchers recently published their work in the Nature journal Urban Sustainability.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, requires regular assessments of climate change adaptation progress, and a global stocktake is currently taking place to measure implementation. "It is important to evaluate the quality of cities’ climate adaption plans, since they are particularly threatened by climate change, with many of them being highly vulnerable to heatwaves, flash flooding, coastal erosion and storms", explains first author Diana Reckien.

General improvement

The researchers showed that the general quality of plans, as well as their overall degree of consistency, improved between 2005 and 2020. On average cities improved most in terms of goal setting, suggesting detailed and different measures, and setting out how plans would be implemented. The plans only slightly or barely improved with regard to detailing future monitoring processes.

More recent plans were also more likely to mention the potential impacts of climate change on vulnerable groups. However, plans got worse over time in terms of detailing measures that particularly address vulnerable people, and very few cities involve children, people on low-incomes, and the elderly in developing their policies, or monitoring and evaluation processes. In relation to impact/risks and goals, cities listed substantially more impacts/risks than they did goals, suggesting little alignment between the two.

Six principles

The researchers created indices to evaluate the quality of urban adaptation plans in relation to six well-established principles: 1.) fact base of potential impacts and risks in the local area; 2.) adaptation goals; 3.) adaptation measures; 4.) details on the implementation of adaptation measures; 5.) monitoring & evaluation of adaptation measures; and 6.) societal participation in plan creation.

It also measured consistency, namely that impacts/risks, goals, measures, monitoring, and participation are aligned with each other. For example, if a city identifies that it is vulnerable to an increase in heatwaves, which put older people at particular risk, a good plan also designs and implements specific heat-related measures, focusing on the elderly, and puts mechanisms in place to assess whether the heat risk for the elderly has reduced after implementation.

Online scoring tool

To help city practitioners assess the quality of their own plans, the researchers developed a free, online Climate Change Adaptation Scoring tool which calculates ’ADAptation plan Quality Assessment’ (ADAQA) indices for individual cities. With the tool, local climate practitioners can check whether their plans are covering the right topics and benchmark against others.

In addition, the components of the indices can be used to benchmark and fast-track improvements in the next generation of plans. The authors recommend that governments and agencies provide more resources, such as the ADAQA indices, to support cities in tracking and assessing their progress.

Corresponding author Dr. Diana Reckien is Associate Professor Climate Change and Urban inequalities at the Faculty of ITC. She is also one of the Featured Scientists of the University of Twente. This research has been carried out together with universities from Hungary, Spain, Greece, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus, France, the UK, Sweden, Croatia, Estonia, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Denmark.

The full paper, Assessing the quality of urban climate adaptation plans over time , has been published open-access in the Nature journal Urban Sustainability.