Accelerating action for urban sustainability and resilience

At McKinsey’s COP26 session Thursday on urban sustainability and resilience, partner Brodie Boland led a conversation with experts on how stakeholders can accelerate action on creating more sustainable, resilient cities.

It’s a challenge with wide implications: Cities are home to more than half of the world’s people—“they’re what bring us together,” as McKinsey senior partner Jonathan Woetzel said—and our analysis shows that by 2050, that figure is projected to rise to 68 percent. At the same time, urban areas are often located in places particularly prone to climate risk, such as on coastlines, floodplains, and islands. Cities also contribute to 70 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. “If we do not get a handle on what we’re doing in cities, we will not be able to address the underlying driver of the growth in our emissions over time,” Jonathan said. “We have to address how we can decouple emissions from growth, and the other challenge is resilience—which is to say that, there’s no way we’re getting out of this unscathed.”

Excerpts from the entire discussion, edited for clarity, are below. A replay of today’s session can be found here. Please visit McKinsey’s COP26 agenda page to register for our final session.

Highlights from today

Momentum at the municipal level:Generally we’re seeing mayors being flexible and innovative. The mayor of Bogota is introducing a metro for the first time in the city, a big extension of the [rapid bus transit] TransMilenio, now with electric buses. …I’ve also been impressed by the way the mayor of Oslo has reduced emissions from construction—now their biggest chunk of emissions—by using municipal procurement to drive the market, saying big municipal developments would be emission-free construction sites. At the outset, the industry said they would love to do it but that the vehicles didn’t exist. They now do, after having been given the incentive.”
—Mark Watts, executive director, C40

The hurdles to green development:For new developments [green building] is already happening. The main challenge still remains for existing assets and the retrofitting required for them—the transition is more complicated to finance and to envisage, even technically. But it’s really where I think the devil is lying; we have to deal with it. It would be too easy to just deal with the new developments.”
—Nathalie Palladitcheff, president and CEO, Ivanhoé Cambridge

How does society move forward?The first challenge is to start to develop the projects that can ultimately help people shift away from the high-carbon activities to low or zero carbon—to finance and develop those projects. But a market—and a market that depends on finance—is only as good as its actors, so the second challenge is to bring people together around a common information base with a common set of motivations. ...People don’t have an infinity of time. Much of the adaptation, and definitely the mitigation, will have to happen in a very front-loaded fashion.”
—Jonathan Woetzel, senior partner, McKinsey & Company

From our venue at COP26

At a glance

Flooding is a part of life in Ho Chi Minh City. This includes flooding from monsoonal rains, which account for about 90 percent of annual rainfall, tidal floods and storm surge from typhoons, and other weather events. In our scenario-planning models, we quantify the possible impact on the city as floods hit real estate and infrastructure assets.

In depth

Learn more about urban sustainability and resilience with these McKinsey articles:

Focused adaptation: how cities can adapt to climate change

Will infrastructure bend or break under climate stress?

Can coastal cities turn the tide on rising flood risk?

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