Can The Threat Of Climate Change Make Cities Richer And Healthier?

If cities are trying to reduce their footprint and investing in a climate-proof infrastructure, the benefits are astounding.

Can The Threat Of Climate Change Make Cities Richer And Healthier?
NYC via Shutterstock

Climate change, we’re told, is a scary thing. There’s nothing but floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires, and heat waves for us to look forward to. Superstorm Sandy was a mere preview of that future–the kind of thing we can expect to happen much more frequently down the line. So you can imagine my surprise upon seeing this phrase emblazoned across the top of a report from the Carbon Disclosure Project: “How climate change action is giving us wealthier, healthier cities.”


It’s not that climate change itself is making cities richer and healthier, the CDP postulates. But all the preparations they’re making–like emissions reductions and energy efficiency–are creating more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, attracting investments, and cutting costs.

The report analyzed data from members of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group in 110 cities around the world, including Tokyo, New York, and London. The CDP’s main conclusion:

The data from these cities makes clear that the benefit of taking action on climate change at the city level is not limited to reducing emissions or adapting to warmer temperatures. The cities in the survey are engaged on the issue of climate change, and, as a result, are saving money, creating more attractive investment environments, and enabling citizens to live healthier lives. In short, climate change action by local governments around the world is creating wealthier, healthier cities.

Energy efficiency measures are by far the most popular actions that cities are taking to cut down on CO2 emissions–mainly by cutting down on energy demand in buildings, boosting municipal fleet fuel efficiency, and reducing both energy consumption maintenance costs of outdoor lighting.

These three actions make up 25% of everything that cities are doing to reduce emissions. And they pay off: in Washington, D.C., a plan to retrofit thousands of residential building units owned by the D.C. Housing Authority (5,400 units have been retrofitted so far) has yielded $3.9 million in electricity savings each year along with $2.4 million in operations and maintenance savings–not to mention the energy bill savings for residents.

The report also suggests that taking emissions reduction actions can be attractive to businesses. After analyzing all 800 actions that the surveyed cities are taking, here’s what the CDP has deemed the best for business (based on academic research on whether they lead to economic growth):

According to the report, cities strongly believe (91% of respondents) that taking action on climate change will make them better places to invest. CDP points out places where this is already happening: In Detroit, for example, a renewed interest in cycling has led to the growth of the bicycle manufacturing industry.


Cities are also tackling the potential health consequences of climate change–things like cholera from flooding and general increased disease risk from heat waves. Municipalities are taking different approaches based on the threats they face. Mexico City is dealing with heat waves by implementing better epidemiological monitoring, which has found that poorly preserved street food left out in the heat is giving people stomach issues. Cape Town is confronting its flooding-related health risks by outlining “no-development” areas, keeping a strong stormwater runoff infrastructure, and doing coastal vulnerability mapping.

All of these actions are unquestionably making certain cities more attractive to investors and residents. And they’re saving lots of money. But eventually, even the best-prepared cities will be hit by climate-related disasters that cost many millions, if not billions, of dollars. The prepared cities will be wealthier and healthier than areas that failed to do anything, but they’ll still suffer. In the short term, though, it’s accurate to say that the threat of climate change is triggering cities to take actions that save money, make life more pleasant for residents, and cut down on emissions.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.