Eternal cities: The future of urban living is low carbon

 |  10 September 2020

Clean energy sources in a city setting
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With cities home to more than half the world’s population, more and more civic leaders are considering their impact on climate change and considering how to lower carbon emissions. How are they doing this? And what will that mean for the energy industry?

Cities are a relatively new invention in human history. Once, most of the world’s population was nomadic or lived rurally. But cities are now our future. Today, more than half of us – over 4 billion people – live in an urban area. By 2050, that fraction will be up to two-thirds. 

We enjoy cities for so many reasons – jobs, education, lifestyle, culture, and the feeling of being in the centre of somewhere important. But although urban areas generate 80 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product, they’re also responsible for producing three-quarters of carbon emissions from final energy use. That puts the pressure on cities and their inhabitants to cut their carbon budgets. With so many of us packed into condensed spaces, city dwellers and leaders are realising they have an epoch-defining role to play in combatting climate change.

A comprehensive report released late last year by the Coalition for Urban Transitions found that low-carbon measures in cities could reduce urban emissions by nearly 90 percent and support 87 million jobs a year by 2030. To keep global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5°C, cities have to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. 

“The battle for the planet will be won or lost in cities,” the report’s authors said. 

That’s a huge challenge for cities, but many are taking it up. Urban centres, supported by national governments, can help change the future for all of Earth’s inhabitants – and the report’s authors say it can be done while improving quality of life, not sacrificing it. The trend means there are opportunities waiting for energy companies to capitalise on this collective desire and invest in consumer education, smart tech, renewable energy, and political lobbying to help not just their city-dwelling customers reduce their carbon impact, but everyone. 

What makes a low-carbon city?

Low-carbon cities aim to be smart, embracing technology and innovation to reduce emissions. Some of the places most often cited as the cleanest and greenest include Reykjavik, Iceland, where geothermal power provides 95% of heating needs, meaning energy is virtually 100% renewable. And while other places around the world may be less geographically blessed, there is much room for improvement. Zurich, Switzerland, has a green energy goal of its citizens using just 2000 watts per person by 2050. And Bristol England, has a target to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050. 

Other cities are stepping up to the plate, with global movements connecting over climate change and low-carbon efforts. One international coalition, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, includes more than 10,000 cities and local governments worldwide that have committed to setting emissions reduction targets and preparing strategic plans to deliver on them. Collectively, the cities are home to more than 800 million people in 138 countries in six continents; in New Zealand, the participants are Auckland, Rotorua Lakes Council, New Plymouth, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin.

There are many areas where cities can focus on low-carbon initiatives, which often have a concurrent increase in how ‘liveable’ these places become. Frequent targets are housing, buildings, transportation, energy, and water use. 

In the United States, cities lauded for their low-carbon initiatives are ranked in the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) annual City Clean Energy Scorecard, which measures the progress of city policies and programmes that save energy, promote renewable energy, provide clean transportation, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Last year, Boston topped the pile, followed by San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Washington. Even those, the report’s authors said, had “considerable room for improvement”. The report contains recommendations for the 75 large US cities it ranks, including those which are just beginning their journeys, have made some progress, or are well on their way. Their recommendations are valuable for other cities around the world that are aspiring to become low-carbon, too. 

For the first group – places which are only just beginning to advance their clean energy efforts – good areas to start with are ensuring municipal authorities lead by example with their local government operations and facilities, such as having greener vehicles and buildings. Cities can then adopt greenhouse gas reduction, energy savings, and renewable energy targets, and partner with energy and water utilities to develop and administer energy-saving plans, spurring the greater adoption of renewable energy.

Cities actively embracing renewable energy can have a major impact on carbon emissions; one leader in this space is Washington, D.C., which in 2019 approved a bill requiring utility providers to switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2032. Additionally, if cities work together across their nation to create more buying power, they can negotiate better terms with energy suppliers to help them move from carbon-emitting sources of energy to greener options. For example, in 2018, 20 United States cities representing more than half a million homes – including Chicago, Boston, Houston, and Portland – joined together in a renewable energy request for information from energy project developers that will help inform a potential future joint purchase of energy and environmental attributes, the first of its kind in the US.

For cities that are a little further along in their efforts, the ACEEE suggested they should consider engaging low-income communities and communities of colour as part of clean energy planning processes, increasing feedback from marginalised groups. They should also manage, track, and communicate energy performance, and enable broader access to energy use information and data; adopt clean energy policies for new buildings; and also decrease transportation energy use by focusing on sustainable transportation planning and policy implementation. 

Finally, for cities already well along the low-carbon track, the report recommended creating clean energy requirements for existing buildings, and pursuing innovative strategies for the transportation sector, making sure to track results to measure progress. 

Carbon-free by design 

Retrofitting existing cities is one approach to low-carbon city living. But what about throwing out the rulebook and starting again with new-build “eco-cities”? First mooted in the 1970s, they’re an attempt to model natural ecosystems by having no negative effect on the environment. 

Aspirational eco-city definitions vary, but they’ll frequently be carbon-neutral, promote public transport, walking, and cycling, maximise water and energy efficiency, deal properly with waste and sanitation, restore environmentally damaged areas, and have quality affordable housing for all. 

Two prototypical cities have announced goals to become the world’s first carbon-free cities, running entirely on renewable energy and with no carbon footprint: Abu Dhabi’s flagship sustainable urban community Masdar City, and Dongtan, China (the existing city Malacca, Malaysia, has also stated its ambition to join them). 

Inside these cities, cars will be banned, and residents will travel around using battery-powered, auto-piloted personal rapid-transit systems, or PRTs. Most of the energy needs will be met by solar, with some wind and biomass as well. 

The 6km2 Masdar City, built by energy company Masdar, calls itself an urban sustainability lab and a “greenprint” for future cities. Currently home to 1300 people and 4000 day workers, by 2030, it’s planned that it will eventually be a fully commercially viable city, with 50,000 citizens making it their home. 

They sound great. But what’s the reality? In fact, Dongtan City, planned for an island close to Shanghai, had similar aspirations to Masdar City when the project was announced in the early 2000s. But nearly 20 years later, it’s still just a plan, and has been criticised as unrealistic hype. 

That’s a charge often levelled at low-carbon or zero-carbon planned settlements. Their detractors fear they are nothing more than symbolic gimmicks, will attract only the wealthy, and will fail to inspire real impacts worldwide, in the most-polluting cities where change – expensive change – is most needed. 

Although model cities such as these are great for capturing imaginations and inspiring action, it’s turning our existing urban environments into low-carbon cities that will have the most impact on ensuring our planet has a sustainable future.

What power companies can do to bolster these efforts

Power companies have a significant role to play here. We know the human race has a fast-narrowing window for meaningful action on climate change. On a business and government level, that means enacting significant policies to reduce emissions now. 

All businesses have a responsibility on behalf of their consumers to support a better, more carbon-friendly future, and power companies in particular can build consumer goodwill by showing strong leadership on climate change and advocating for a cleaner, renewable energy future. This is most important in cities, where the change can be profound. 

Some ways to do this include speaking up: advocating on behalf of individual consumers and lobbying for a city’s carbon reduction practices. Opportunities to do this could include vocally and financially supporting groups and initiatives promoting walking, cycling and public transport.

On a personal level, power companies can support their clients’ efforts to adopt energy-saving practices in their households, such as electric transport and solar energy. They can do this by explaining why, showing how, and offering products, rewards and services to help customers make a smooth transition. Their communications with customers can help educate around reducing individual and collective carbon impact. When it comes to innovation and product development, they can focus on new and emerging green technologies and embrace renewable energy. 

And finally, by going through a carbon audit and adopting carbon-reducing or carbon-neutral business practices themselves, power companies can also ensure they practice what they preach. Embodying change at their heart will help support society’s transition to a clean-energy future for everyone – no matter where we choose to live.

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