Cities consume about 66% of the world’s energy, account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions and are home to 55% of the world’s population. Big statistics that highlight the importance of city action in the global imperative to decarbonise. So, what will make the difference? Mott MacDonald’s Clare Wildfire has some ideas.
Cities almost everywhere are growing, and as they expand, existing populations and those migrating to them will require new and improved infrastructure, including housing, transport, energy and water systems and education and healthcare facilities.
Providing the infrastructure that cities require going forward against the backdrop of existing and accelerating climate change is a challenge for national and local governments and for the infrastructure sector.
Imagine carbon is water filling a bathtub; we’d turn off the tap well before the water reached a level that risked overflowing and causing significant damage. We need to view infrastructure-related carbon emissions in a similar way. Adding to and renewing the stock of existing infrastructure is necessary in many cities – and especially in developing countries historical climate injustice – so we can’t simply turn off the tap, but nor can we keep building as we did in the past.
We have less than 30 years to achieve the net-zero goal. We know the main changes that are required to get there: generating clean energy, reducing energy demand, and locking away hard to eliminate emissions.
How we produce and use energy in cities and elsewhere is already undergoing a revolution in many countries, with renewables rapidly replacing fossil fuel generation and new types of infrastructure created to bring low-carbon energy into everyday use. That transformation must accelerate and spread. Yet, it is a significant undertaking, not just financially but also technically, so there is also a parallel need to curb our demand for energy. The net-zero concept allows for limited residual emissions. These will need to be sequestered through natural solutions and by quickly scaling-up technology to capture and safely store carbon.
Decarbonising our cities
There is no path to net-zero without getting it right in cities. Adopting a four-pillar strategy focused on powers, partnerships, data platforms and people may provide the best route to net-zero in our cities. This is how.
Empower cities to facilitate low carbon interventions where they are best placed to do so. Local action would accelerate change and deliver local benefits and synergies that are not always visible at a national level – though these may require new forms of collaboration between the public and the private sector.
A long-term resilient future for their city is what local businesses and local government ultimately want, and this shared outcome is an opportunity to align local investment with the direction the city wants and needs to go. It can spur stakeholders to work together to decide the future they want and turn it into a reality.
In this conversation, the public sector brings convening power, sets direction, rewards good behaviour, provides pump-priming investment at low rates of return and contributes key unlocking assets, such as land. The private sector brings skills, investment appetite (at normal rates of return) and, crucially, the ability to scale-up fast if the conditions are right.
Being able to fully evaluate the environmental and economic benefits as well as the social outcomes is important to unlock new business models and use of capital. This is where data insights will help drive change, with a system-level picture enabling actions to be evaluated (valued) for their impact on local air quality, flood risk, food poverty, energy poverty, health and wellbeing as well as carbon reduction.
This system-level picture must also encompass the natural environment. Nature is essential to our climate response, not just as a carbon sink but also with the adaptive capacity it provides for other city challenges – such as flooding, air and water pollution and high temperatures.
Achieving net-zero in our cities will require citizens to significantly change their behaviour. Involving them in the long-term planning for local climate action is the best way to gain their support when difficult decisions are necessary.
The latest IPCC report warns that the climate breakdown is accelerating rapidly and that many of the effects will be more severe than predicted, and happen sooner. Time is fast running out. Let’s make our cities part of the solution.
Clare Wildfire featured on a panel at The Economist Impact 7th annual Sustainability Week on 24 March.