As cities recover from the pandemic, they must anticipate a future of climate threats. Here’s how to build urban resilience to future shocks

By Mafalda Duarte, chief executive of the Climate Investment Funds

They are home to an ever-growing majority of people. They are central hubs of traffic, industry, and commerce. Cities simultaneously house the biggest contributors to climate change and the bearers of some of its worst impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened focus on the profound influence of cities in other ways, since the virus can spread rapidly in high-density populations and travel hubs.

The risks of climate change and pandemics escalate among the most vulnerable people, particularly in developing countries. They often live in crowded quarters and informal settlements. Conditions tend to be unhygienic, with little or no running water, and lack usable public spaces.

It is hardly surprising that over 95% of COVID-19 cases are in urban areas. Cities are, therefore, where the twin battle against the virus and climate change must be fought—and won.  Fortunately, some of the strategies are the same.

And history has repeatedly shown that cities can be efficient places and remarkable engines of innovation. They boast long traditions of reinventing themselves in response to pandemics, such as by introducing new sewage systems, public parks, and housing regulations to improve sanitation and reduce overcrowding.  

As nations around the world embark on a recovery from the pandemic and anticipate a future of climate threats, we must harness this innovative spirit to build resilience to future shocks in all forms.

Financing green, resilient, and inclusive urban development

As the pandemic wears on, cities are taking a major financial hit, through increased costs for public health and social care. This comes even as revenues from taxes and local services such as transport have nosedived. The pressure is mounting for cities to support businesses, generate jobs and restore public services.

It may be tempting to try to return to the old normal. But, if anything, the pandemic has spotlighted urban vulnerabilities, such as deficient public services, poor quality housing, insufficient public space, and patterns of development that exacerbate both the impacts of climate change and the spread of disease.

Urban development has a chance to catalyze a historic transition, one that takes steps to recover from the pandemic and tackle climate change by moving towards development that is sustainable, resilient and includes everyone.

This would not be an easy feat, even in the best of times. Cities struggle with limited governance, technical and institutional capacities. Many find it difficult to access enough finance, given challenges related to intergovernmental fiscal structures, regulatory environments, creditworthiness, bankability, and project pipelines. To chart a recovery that puts the pandemic behind us and is also climate smart and inclusive, they must access substantial and innovative financing—starting now.

Governments and institutions around the world have courageously agreed on trillion-dollar recovery strategies to meet the COVID-19 crisis. To make a real difference, this enormous amount of money must be spent wisely. Beyond investing in immediate public health, job creation, and livelihood support, there is an important window of opportunity to use these funds to move toward smarter, more sustainable cities.

This is especially the case in developing countries where cities and infrastructure are growing exponentially. And it is particularly important for small and medium-sized cities, as many are expanding rapidly but with few resources and little access to new sources of finance.

Concessional finance can help cities topple barriers and aim for new models of urban development. Development finance institutions offer important support by providing direct investments and backing private sector inflows.  

To complement a variety of global initiatives—such as those announced at the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019—the Climate Investment Funds has pledged to support cities through its Climate-Smart Urbanization Program. A key player in climate financing since 2008, the Climate Investment Funds has established a unique business model that delivers transformative investment programs through predictable, at-scale, flexible, and highly concessional climate finance. It operates through a joint platform linking multilateral development banks.

Amid the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, the programme’s focus is on delivering scaled finance, starting with upstream policy and strengthening of institutional know-how, as well as diagnosis and planning where relevant. It then catalyses large-scale investments to put those plans in motion.

Investments are foreseen in key sectors, including energy, transport, buildings, water and waste systems. And this will be done in a very inclusive and participatory manner, including by giving a voice to urban communities, particularly the most vulnerable.

By offering technical and financial support, the Climate Investment Funds aims to help cities attract private sector investments from capital markets and other avenues.

Prospects are bright. According to the International Finance Corporation, cities in emerging markets have the capability to attract more than $29 trillion in climate-related investments in key sectors by 2030.

Tapping into private flows will require strengthening revenue flows, regulatory environments and financial management systems. It means developing financial instruments and investment vehicles that improve project bankability, enhance creditworthiness, and generate investor confidence and appetite through de-risking novel climate-smart solutions. The Climate Investment Funds has a proven history of support in all of these areas.

Our goal is to see cities achieve more compact urban growth, more connected and resilient infrastructure, and more coordinated governance. These, in turn, can boost employment opportunities and long-term urban productivity, and yield far-reaching environmental and social benefits.

As a major global climate financier, the Climate Investment Funds is determined to play our part in making the new normal, post COVID-19, a climate-smart, pandemic-proof urban model. We will collaborate closely with city leaders and all those who call cities home to make this vision a reality.

Mafalda Duarte is head of the Climate Investment Funds, one of the world's largest multilateral climate funds.

This post was first published on the World Bank blog as part of a series on smart urbanisation.