Climate change has presented cities with new challenges and opportunities for improving their liveability. If well-managed, cities offer both adaptation and mitigation benefits, as well as sustainable development opportunities, that other forms of living cannot.

Climate change can no longer be ignored. Estimates suggest that inaction could cost the global economy between 5 and 20% of GDP each year, depending on the severity of climate change damages (Stern 2006). Resource- and carbon-efficient development, alongside adaptation mechanisms, is the only sustainable long-term option (Hickel and Kallis 2020). Sustainability is about ensuring that future generations have opportunities in terms of wellbeing that are at least as good as those available to the current generation (Stern and Valero 2021).

Getting cities right (or wrong) has long-term, locked-in consequences. This is particularly important for lower-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia which are relatively more exposed to the effects of climate change (IPCC 2022). Developing countries that get the city-development model right have better prospects of delivering sustainable growth and improving urban resilience to climate shocks. Climate change action—with a strategic focus on resilient, well-functioning cities—can yield strong adaptation benefits, lower per capita greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and higher growth. Focusing public policy on urban livelihoods provides economic and environmental benefits, offering cities a chance to deliver on their sustainable urbanisation potential.

Key messages

  1. Cities in developing countries are both the most vulnerable to climate change and the most viable solution to managing its impacts.
  2. Urban density enables reduction in per capita emissions from infrastructure and services.
  3. Access to local public goods and services aids resilience to environmental shocks and stressors.
  4. Decisions about the city’s physical characteristics and infrastructure today will lock-in long-term consequences for the future.

Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Sarah Colenbrander and Kagiso Tshukudu for their contributions to earlier versions of this work.