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3 ways to advance climate-resilient housing solutions in vulnerable communities

Housing in Nepal using sustainable cement bamboo technology, which creates 70% less carbon emissions than conventional construction.

Housing in Nepal using sustainable cement bamboo technology, which creates 70% less carbon emissions than conventional construction. Image: Abisek Bista

Jonathan T.M. Reckford
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Housing is a frequently overlooked as part of addressing the climate crisis.
  • 75% of the infrastructure needed by 2050 has not been built yet: an unmissable opportunity to address climate adaptation and mitigation, and the housing needs of vulnerable populations.
  • People in least-developed countries are those both most affected by climate change and the affordable housing shortage.

When Hurricane George slammed into the Dominican Republic in 1998, Máxima was among the survivors whose homes sustained significant water and structural damage in the Category 4 storm.

The roof was not built to withstand severe weather conditions. “Completely deteriorated” is how she described it this summer, as we worked side by side to help renovate her home to standards that will ensure resiliency and stability through future disasters. Since the storm, Máxima has been incrementally improving her new home using a series of small loans for specific projects over time. “Now, I will feel safe, comfortable, and protected,” she said, “because I have a safe roof.”

Housing presents an often-overlooked opportunity to address climate adaptation and mitigation solutions in a way that profoundly benefits vulnerable populations. As the world continues to deal with more frequent, more extreme weather events, it’s clear that we cannot tackle climate change without addressing the need for affordable and sustainable housing.

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The following three ideas capture ways in which we can increase the global housing supply with homes that are more energy-efficient and weather-resilient, without deepening the affordability crisis. They also focus on the needs of populations that are at highest risk from the adverse impacts of climate change, particularly in informal settlements.

1. Championing transformational approaches to reducing carbon emissions from housing

The dual crises of climate change and a global affordable housing shortage are inextricably linked. Effective solutions can and should solve for both. A recent report released by Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter noted the extraordinary potential to jointly tackle these challenges. The circular economy can help us achieve a net-zero future through climate change mitigation and drive greater affordability.

Introducing circular economy principles into housing will help address the climate crisis.
Introducing circular economy principles into housing will help address the climate crisis.

UN-Habitat estimates that 75% of the infrastructure that will be needed by 2050 has not been built yet; most will be constructed in emerging market countries. Despite the sheer magnitude of the challenge, it offers a chance for stakeholders, governments, entrepreneurs, and individual homeowners to drive progress and create solutions tailored to the needs of specific contexts around the world.

That’s why Habitat for Humanity International is investing in innovative approaches to meet communities’ specific adaptation and mitigation needs. For example, in the Philippines and Nepal, specially treated bamboo and plaster transforms a traditional building material into a structurally sound and sustainable cement bamboo product. It is earthquake-resistant, creates 70% less carbon emissions than conventional construction methods and provides jobs in local communities.

By committing to the four strategies of a circular economy – use less, use longer, make clean, use again – public and private sector housing partnerships can champion and accelerate innovative approaches, especially for low-income housing construction in emerging markets.

2. Prioritizing community preparedness through resilient housing

The United Nations projects that urban population growth in less developed regions will be over 2 billion people by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Without immediate and effective solutions, growing numbers of climate-displaced populations will add to the complexity of the global need for adequate and affordable housing. Funding and planning for climate adaptation must specifically identify housing needs and supporting infrastructures to ensure that communities at greatest risk of flood, heat and rising seas, especially in informal settlements, can withstand the impacts of such disasters. The World Bank reports that it is four times more cost-effective to invest in resiliency than rebuilding, as it not only avoids costly repairs but minimizes widespread disruptions to services and livelihoods. Frequently, these efforts can be incremental and strategically placed.

In Trinidad and Tobago, a Participatory Safe Shelter Awareness programme builds local capacity to reduce shelter-related risks from increasingly intense storms, hurricanes and flooding. The programme fosters community engagement to raise awareness among key stakeholders and plan approaches to minimize and address current risks. Residents who identified intensification of flooding as a core risk to safety and habitability are helping improve the housing of the most vulnerable members of their community before the next storm makes landfall.


3. Redirecting focus and financing to the least-developed and emerging economies

The 46 least-developed countries in the world only account for approximately 1.1% of total world carbon emissions despite being home to 1.1 billion people. While these countries were affected by less than a fifth of climate-related disasters, they have suffered 69% of deaths worldwide attributable to such events. Given that those who are most affected by climate change will also benefit most from measures to improve the global housing shortage, climate change mitigation and adaptation must incorporate housing needs in order to succeed.

That’s why I was pleased that leaders at COP27 came to an agreement to provide loss and damage funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters to support resiliency and rebuilding efforts. Importantly, discussions around improving the way development banks and international financial institutions climate solutions are also being taken seriously. These are necessary first steps toward addressing the concerns of communities – and countries – that are often overlooked and yet are critical components to responding to the impacts of climate change.

Making housing visible

There is still much to accomplish in pursuing mitigation and adaptation goals.

Adequate and affordable housing will play an increasingly vital role in achieving success. In communities around the world, we are seeing increasingly severe disasters change the way people live their lives. To truly address this momentous challenge, we must modify our housing to be resilient for the climate of today and the future.


How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

Housing is an integral part of the climate agenda, and yet is nearly invisible in the global discourse. Governments at all levels, civil society and stakeholders must recognize housing as a critical and essential platform for climate adaptation and mitigation. If leveraged properly, it can be the lynchpin to effectively scale innovations and solutions for mitigation and resilience efforts that will fundamentally impact people and families in their everyday lives.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalNature and BiodiversityUrban Transformation
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