Intermediary Cities and Climate Change: An Opportunity for Sustainable Development
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OECD and UN-Habitat

Intermediary Cities and Climate Change: An Opportunity for Sustainable Development

Intermediary cities provide an unprecedented opportunity for advancing with climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Increasing evidence, including the latest assessment of the International Panel on Climate Change, reaffirms that global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not decreasing at the expected pace. The world is thus reaching a tipping point that could lead to irreversible damage to ecosystems and our societies. In parallel, intermediary cities in developing countries are transforming. Many are rapidly expanding, sometimes outpacing the capacity of governments to reduce vulnerability to climate shocks, invest in low-carbon infrastructure and establish plans, mechanisms and institutions that limit climate-risks and GHG emissions. If adequate actions take place now, many of these small and medium-sized cities can experience a green transition by design, i.e. they can be planned and organised to grow in a sustainable way that avoids the “grow now, clean later” strategy followed by many larger cities.

Yet intermediary cities – defined in this report as those with 50 000 to 1 million inhabitants – are often overlooked in national, regional and urban development policies. Given the urgency of the climate challenge, they deserve increased attention. First, these cites encompass a large share of the urban population most at risk from a changing climate. Cities with fewer than 1 million inhabitants accounted for 58% of the urban population in less developed regions in 2020, and will still account for 53% by 2035. Second, these cities generally play an intermediation role linking rural and metropolitan areas, which allows them to contribute to development efforts at the regional and national levels, including efforts to build climate resilience. Third, rapid urbanisation is hindering the capacity of authorities in intermediary cities to provide public services and an environment safe from increasingly frequent extreme climate events.

This report studies the complex relationship between intermediary cities and climate change. It uses multiple datasets to better understand how climate change affects intermediary cities, and how these cities are contributing to GHG emissions (Chapter 2). The report also explores how climate shocks that affect rural areas can indirectly affect intermediary cities due to the disruption of food systems and rural-to-urban migration (Chapter 3). Understanding these interactions is fundamental for more effective policies. Yet little is known about the strategies of intermediary cities in developing countries for coping with climate change. The report aims to address this gap by analysing climate strategies across intermediary cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and by identifying factors that led to the implementation of these polices as well as major challenges (Chapter 4). The report recognises that without adequate financing mechanisms, the policies necessary for addressing climate change across intermediary cities can end up being a set of green good intentions. For this reason, it analyses the mechanisms that can help to boost the financial resources for climate action across intermediary cities, as well as showcasing key areas for reform (Chapter 5).

Overall, this study shows that there is no single narrative regarding the way in which climate change affects intermediary cities in developing countries. Certain climate shocks have a greater effect on intermediary cities than on larger cities, and vice versa. For instance, based on the sample of cities analysed, 63% of the built-up area in intermediary cities with a population of 50 000 to 100 000 inhabitants in 2015 was potentially exposed to riverine flooding. In contrast, in cities with more than 1 million inhabitants, the share was lower, at 38%. In the case of heat waves, a different pattern emerges.