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For billions of people around the world, housing is the frontline in the fight against climate change

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By Jonathan Reckford

· 5 min read

At COP28 in Dubai, environmental leaders took stock of an alarming fact: the world is far from reaching the targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement to slow down climate change and the effects of a rapidly warming planet. For this, the world’s most vulnerable are likely to pay the highest price.

According to a recent UN Climate Change Report, less than 1% of climate adaptation efforts currently prioritize marginalized populations, leaving our most at-risk communities in the eye of the climate storm. To make matters worse, rapid urbanization and an increase in violent conflicts have exacerbated the number of low-income families struggling to find safe, climate-resilient and affordable shelter. Today, more than 2.8 billion people worldwide live in inadequate housing, including 1.1 billion living in slums and informal settlements. Despite contributing the least to carbon emissions, these communities are often the most affected by the intensity and frequency of climate disasters, such as floods, fires, major storms and tsunamis.

While global climate mitigation is crucial to address this deepening housing crisis, adaptation is key to alleviating the ongoing harm of climate change to informal settlements before longer-term global mitigation efforts bear fruit. According to the OECD, governments spent $20 billion less on adaptation efforts compared to greenhouse gas mitigation initiatives in 2020. World leaders are continuing to short-change their most vulnerable communities by allocating less than 10% of climate investments to adaptation programmes. This is five to 10 times less than what is needed.

Put simply: climate mitigation without adaptation ignores the immediate and dire threat faced by low-income families living in regions bearing the greatest brunt of climate change impacts.

3 ways to improve housing and protect communities

These three key strategies will help nations accelerate progress towards their climate targets and ensure our most vulnerable, housing-insecure communities get centre-stage in global climate action.

1. Recognize the centrality of adequate housing

For too long, housing has been relegated to the backburner when it comes to the global response to climate change. Governments and climate activists must recognize that prioritizing adequate, safe and sustainable housing for all will help achieve both carbon mitigation for a net-zero future and strengthen climate adaptation efforts. Access to safe, adequate housing is not only essential in building resilience against climate change but also key to bolstering overall community welfare.

A recent global report shows that investing in upgrading informal settlements can bring about transformational benefits in income, health and education. In developing countries, these investments can result in increases of up to 10.5% in GDP and 28% in years of schooling, while also contributing up to a 4% jump in life expectancy. The resulting economic gains from rising living standards would more than compensate for the cost of these long-overdue housing improvements.

2. Prioritize the most vulnerable through incremental adaptation

In many developing countries, families seeking affordable, safe shelter regularly opt to build homes incrementally. Without appropriate oversight, these housing projects often result in dangerous living conditions that are extremely susceptible to climate change hazards. Owner-driven, incremental construction in informal settlements plays an important role in addressing the housing deficit and must be supported with low-carbon materials and sustainable building codes and practices that enable climate-resilient housing to flourish.

new report from Habitat for Humanity International highlights how partnerships between public and private sectors, local businesses and NGOs are supporting highly effective, low-cost climate adaptation strategies to strengthen housing resilience and community safety in informal settlements. From solar home systems to green roofs and rainwater harvesting, there is no shortage of sustainable, nature-based solutions that can help prevent overconsumption of natural resources and strengthen climate adaptation efforts. These innovative green initiatives can readily be replicated at scale to alleviate climate risks and protect the livelihoods of millions of households worldwide.

3. Invest in upgrading and greening of informal settlements

Given that the built environment already accounts for 37% of global greenhouse emissions, climate action leaders must invest in upgrading and greening informal settlements through innovative technologies and products that advance sustainable housing adaptation. Over the past decade, there has been up to a $174 billion deficit in venture capital for technology solutions to reduce the built environment’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This is even before we begin to tackle the lack of investment in housing adaptation initiatives.

Investing in sustainable housing: a win-win

Climate mitigation and adaptation solutions are not mutually exclusive. Many of the most promising affordable housing products and technologies are less carbon-intensive than traditional materials. Smart and consistent support for green adaptation solutions will greatly contribute to mitigation goals. Yet far too many investors lack awareness of the many opportunities to address the sustainable housing needs of millions of families, especially in the Global South.

ShelterTech is just one example of a global platform where startups, scaleups and big businesses work together to meet the needs of low-income households through investment in affordable, climate-resilient initiatives. Start Somewhere, one of the many non-profits supported by ShelterTech, is based in the informal settlement of Kibera, Kenya. Using locally sourced materials, it constructs unique building blocks — called TwistBlocks — made of low-cost, reusable, fire-resistant cement to retrofit homes, making them safer and more weather-resistant. Greater investment from all sectors in these types of innovative, eco-friendly solutions will help achieve strong climate adaptation-mitigation linkages, with far-reaching societal benefits.

Access to adequate, sustainable housing for all is an integral part of building a climate-safe future – and it is a keystone to improving individual and societal well-being.

As governments worldwide act to meet their climate goals, they must prioritize the urgent housing needs of the more than 1 billion people living on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Jonathan T.M. Reckford is the chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International, a global Christian housing organization that has helped more than 59 million people construct, rehabilitate or preserve their homes. He is also the chair of Leadership 18, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Global Future Council on the Future of Cities for the World Economic Forum, and a board member of the Barron Collier Companies.

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