HomeOpinion & AnalysisAs cities push to slash climate emissions, what’s going to work?

As cities push to slash climate emissions, what’s going to work?


Net-zero goals are getting popular. The United Kingdom, Switzerland and Costa Rica recently reiterated theirs, while Australia and Iceland strengthened theirs, and even Brazil announced a target.

But as global actors commit to net-zero goals, their ability to buy offsets — to compensate emissions they don’t reduce themselves — risks net-zero as a term being watered down.

If we are to achieve carbon neutrality, it’ll require a fundamental transformation of systems causing the climate crisis.

Members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, who committed to carbon neutrality years ago, identified five areas requiring immediate adoption if we are to halve emissions by 2030.

Two priority areas — decarbonising buildings and transport — tackle the big emitters in cities. We know how to do this: electrify everything we can and centralize the rest — e.g., district heating, common in our European cities — and fuel it with renewables.

The next areas — regenerative economies and transformative governance — have a roadmap too, spearheaded by Amsterdam’s effort to be the first circular economy city and Oslo’s climate budgeting across city departments.

While “regenerative” sounds pie-in-the-sky, nature-based solutions are being integrated globally, waste is becoming a thing of the past, and consumption-based emissions are at the forefront of cities’ minds.

“Transformative” also sounds idealistic, but cities are rapidly evolving here. Covid shows how quickly governments can adapt and transform.

The fifth area is a “carbon neutral district” where it all comes together, where entire systems are designed to illustrate what’s possible.

Are these heavy lifts? Yes. But the groundwork is in place.

First, on decarbonising buildings. This is the necessary short-term climate task.

Buildings generate nearly 40% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling building footprints now could knock a serious dent in emissions.

This is why Vancouver introduced net-zero emission standards for new buildings years ago, so they don’t lock in emissions for decades.

It’s why Sydney launched a Better Buildings Cup to create a norm-setting competition among large companies to reduce their carbon footprints.

It’s why New York City rolled out a grading system to give A-F grades to most/least efficient buildings.

Retrofitting existing buildings isn’t easy.

Incentivising building owners to shift heating systems is difficult when it’s the tenant, not the owner, paying heating bills.

When building owners incur capital costs, they often pass along inequitable rate increases to low-income tenants, increasing energy burdens.

But we must double-down on building decarbonisation and create ways, like cities above, to normalise it.

Second, on decarbonising transport. The pace of vehicle electrification is slow, despite progress in cities like Oslo.

Already, transportation accounts for 25% of global emissions.

If things don’t change, this will rise 60% by 2050.

Fossil-fuelled passenger vehicles are the biggest offenders, but air and maritime sectors are also responsible. With the steady increase in e-commerce, this will increase dramatically, if nothing is done. — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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