global study of the world’s biggest cities finds Jakarta to be at the highest risk, thanks to high levels of air pollution coupled with risks of seismic activity and flooding. Of the 100 most threatened cities by environmental factors, 99 cities are in Asia, with 80 of them in the region’s powerhouses China and India. 

As the first instalment of Verisk Maplecroft’s ‘Cities@Risk’ series, the study looks at 576 cities with a population exceeding 1 million, and draws on nine environmental risks, including air pollution, water stress and natural hazards. It also evaluates current and potential future threats to liveability and investment assets. Subsequent rankings covering security and social issues will follow later in the year.

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“Cities are generally the drivers of growth,” Will Nichols, head of environment and climate change at Verisk Maplecroft, tells fDi. “So as these cities get more difficult to live in, it will become more difficult for businesses to exist there.

“In the longer term, you can see that might be a threat to cities’ positions as wealth generators and, potentially, you start to question how much they can contribute towards global economies.”

India’s urban centres follow Jakarta at the top of the list. The country is home to 13 of the world’s 20 highest risk locations, with the capital, Delhi, rated as the second highest risk city in the ranking. Delhi is followed by the likes of Chennai (3rd), Agra (6th) and Kanpur (10th), with Jaipur (22nd), Lucknow (24th), Bengaluru (25th), and Mumbai (27th) close behind.

Pollution is the main threat to the health of India’s huge urban populations, with its cities making up the 19 of the 20 most at risk in Verisk Maplecroft’s Air Quality Index. Meanwhile, East Asian cities, such as flood-prone Guangzhou in China, and Osaka and Tokyo in Japan, are most exposed to infrastructure damage caused by earthquakes and typhoons.

Outside Asia, the Middle East and North Africa has the largest proportion of cities categorised as high risk. Extreme water stress and the impact of natural hazards, such as earthquakes, means populous Turkish and Iranian cities dominate the region’s worst-performing urban areas.

As far as climate-change risks are concerned, African cities, such as Kinshasa, Congo, and Lagos, Nigeria, fare the worst as they are not only most exposed to climate extremes, but are also least able to mitigate their impacts.

The least environmentally risky cities are in Europe, the study highlights, with 14 of the 20 least risky cities to be found on the continent. These include Glasgow, the host of the 2021 United Nations’ Cop26 climate change conference, Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, Oslo and Helsinki. But no city comes out as low risk, as most of the cities that have fallen in the study’s lower-end categories are still classed as “medium risk”.

Mr Nichols points out that water stress in the Mediterranean and south-eastern Europe is a problem “akin to one in any other part of the world”. Europe also tends to have older infrastructure and more elderly populations, he says, which may put added pressures on its cities’ health systems as the world warms.

The uneven effects of environmental risk and climate change also have clear echoes of the ongoing and variegated Covid-19 vaccine rollout.  

“I think what the pandemic has exposed is the areas where we still need to work together, and to work towards common interests. Whether we are able to do that for a much more diffuse threat, we will have to see,” Mr Nichols says.