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How cities can power their economic engines with renewable energy

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 09:00

City planning and management need to take full account of climate change, simply because exposed cities equal large parts of any countries’ population and infrastructure exposed to the threats of climate change. Exclusively writing for Government Gazette, Daniele Violetti, Chief of Staff, UNFCC says cities not only need to adapt to climate change, they also have a major role to play in mitigating its impact

The year 2015 was a historic year for two reasons: first, for the first time in history, the nations of the world agreed a universal climate change agreement – the Paris Agreement – which sets an ideal temperature increase threshold of 1.5C. The agreement also strengthens the drive to adapt to the consequences of climate change and embraces the national climate action plans (the nationally determined contributions “NDCs”) mainly towards the reduction of greenhouse gases that countries made. It not only calls for action, it also boosts action. 2015 also saw agreement on new sustainable development goals which boost climate action. For the first time in history, more people on this planet lived in cities than outside of them.

Globally, urbanisation is occurring in leaps and bounds with no sign of abating. So too in Europe, where from over 72% today, around 80% of Europeans will be living in urban areas by 2020. In some countries this may be as much as 90%. This unprecedented wave of urbanisation is leading to many new challenges. For example, in 1990, there were ten “mega-cities” with 10 million inhabitants or more, and now there are 28 mega-cities worldwide, home to 453 million people. Another example of a new challenge is in Europe, where cities have expanded on average by 78%, whereas the population has grown by 33%. This has been largely due to low density suburban development over the past 20 years, which, similar to the mega-cities, necessitates infrastructure with increased connectivity and transport and other logistical challenges to meet the needs of urban populations.

As if these challenges were not large enough, they are also taking place in the era of climate change. This means climate change impacts such as floods or sea-level rise that we are already locked into given current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere on the one hand, and the absolute necessity to reduce greenhouse gases as we move forward on the other. City planning and management need to take full account of climate change because in the context of growing urbanisation, exposed cities equal large parts of any countries’ population and infrastructure exposed to the threats of climate change.

Cities not only need to adapt to climate change, they also have a major role to play in mitigating its impact. The rapid expansion of cities means that greenhouse gas reduction measures have to be taken today to help tackle climate change. Yet, acting on climate change for the sake of acting on climate change is a view that inadequately captures what it is all about. Climate action isn’t just about greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change impacts. Rather, climate action goes hand-in-hand with sustainable development. Implementing the new sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement will lead to a myriad of co-benefits for people.

Climate action can increase liveability, reduce public health costs, improve community, strengthen sustainable development and create business opportunities. For example, policies to ensure cleaner air in cities have a positive impact on the climate, but they also have a decidedly positive impact on people as they lead to fewer respiratory complications and lower public health costs. Climate action at the city level means that local leaders have the opportunity to create jobs, ensure people have access to water, food and energy and increase the resilience that safeguards communities from climate impacts.

To deliver these benefits to citizens, careful planning is required. Cities can transform their local growth dynamics by powering their economic engines with renewable energy, shifting their transport systems to low-carbon or by creating cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Cities can look at all systems residents rely on – land use, building codes, waste management, water management and infrastructure investment – and align these systems with a sustainable future.

Cities around the world have started taking inspiring action.
- In Lima, a bus rapid transit system helps people get to work, to school and to their doctors more quickly and at reasonable cost, while avoiding transportation emissions.
- In New York, resilient infrastructure ensures mobility and productivity in the face of climate impacts. And ambitious targets guide building and transportation policy.
- In Beijing, a regional carbon market is being tested alongside seven other markets to bring a national carbon market to China, a move that benefits public health and encourages green jobs.
- In Paris, a transformational shift in energy generation and use is now incorporated into city planning and policy, and it is already creating clean energy jobs.
These types of actions should increase around the world. To achieve this, cities can partner together to proliferate best practices and share lessons learned so that all cities can be enabled and empowered in the transition to climate smart development and sustainability.
Actually, the absolute need to keep average global temperature increases to 1.5C combined with the unabatedly strong trend of urbanisation and expanded cities, means that cities need to have an ever increasing role in meeting their country’s national climate action plans through their own climate smart development.

In this way, cities can play a key role in the implementation of their country’s climate action plans, and at the same time enable them to raise their overall level of ambition when it comes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

This would be a key contribution to the implementation of the Paris Agreement and sustainable development goals and would boost the breakthrough in climate action and sustainability that the agreements promote.

This contribution would not be a one-way street. In 2015, the UNFCCC climate change secretariat launched the NAZCA portal (, an online platform to showcase the massive mobilization of cities, regions, business and investors in moving towards and implementing climate change solutions. The Paris Agreement explicitly recognises the efforts made by cities and other non-state actors and calls for a scaling up of these efforts.

Many cities have entered their climate change goals on NAZCA and we urge many more to do so. 2015 was a historic year. The key now is to turn the upcoming years into a historic phase: a phase of unprecedented climate action spurred by co-benefits, and supported by the Paris Agreement and sustainable development goals