With temperatures in cities set to rise in the coming decades, many public and private players in emerging markets are looking to tackle the challenge of extreme heat through technology, sustainable building techniques and the expansion of urban green spaces.

Heat Consequences

The Covid-19 pandemic helped spur the growth of smart cities, with national and municipal governments tapping into data-collection infrastructure to track and limit the spread of the virus. Similar technologies are now being harnessed to map and mitigate climate change within urban spaces.

Microsoft, in partnership with the Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society, has developed an artificial intelligence model that projects the impact of heat on vulnerable populations in India. Previously deployed to track cyclone and flood risk, the technology uses satellite imagery and building assessments to measure heat wave risk for urban areas and communicate effective interventions to protect vulnerable populations from extreme temperatures.

Tracking emissions in cities can help address so-called urban heat islands (UHIs). Cities are responsible for roughly 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, due partly to motorised transport systems and construction, both of which consume large amounts of fossil fuels. Governments are increasingly working to spread awareness of the dangers posed by warming cities and mitigate risk due to the potential economic consequences of intense heat. For example, a November 2022 study commissioned by Christian Aid found that the GDP growth rate for African countries could fall by as much as 64% by 2100, even if the world manages to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as the continent is particularly susceptible to the effects of a warming planet despite accounting for less than 4% of its CO output. In the Middle East, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all implemented summer work bans to help protect workers by limiting their hours spent outdoors when temperatures can reach life-threatening highs.

Traditional urban-development techniques can help lower temperatures, especially in the MENA region. Construction materials play a significant role in generating emissions, as well as in absorbing heat. With an estimated 80% of the world’s current buildings – which account for roughly 60% of emissions in urban areas – expected to be in use as of 2050, it is important that countries opt for materials that reflect heat and cut energy usage when constructing new buildings.

Green Efforts

Many tenets of sustainable urban planning also provide relief for UHIs. Green areas help preserve moisture, which in turn cools down the surrounding areas. Public transport systems, meanwhile, reduce the reliance on cars while simultaneously limiting the need for heat-absorbing road networks.

One significant ecological initiative is Green Riyadh, a government-funded project in Saudi Arabia that aims to increase the share of green space in the capital. Under the project, 7.5m trees are set to be planted throughout the city, which in turn is expected to reduce the average temperature in some parts of the city by 8-15°C, reduce dust concentration and power consumption, and improve the city’s urban landscape.

Latin America, the world’s second-most-urbanised region, offers several case studies for sustainable urban development. Spearheaded by the government of Colombia and the World Economic Forum, the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative seeks to encourage the development of cities alongside the growth of nature. In 2022 Mexico City was awarded a World Green City Award by the International Association of Horticultural Producers for planting over 27m trees and plants and rehabilitating 16 large parks. Curitiba, Brazil is considered one of the world’s greenest cities, as it is home to the first bus rapid transit system, which accounts for 50% of trips taken by residents in the city, and extensive green spaces, including 48 parks and 13m sq metres of native vegetation. Residents can also trade in recyclable waste for food as part of an exchange programme.