In Cities’ War Against Climate Change, Heating and Cooling, Transport Are Key Battlegrounds

Installing rooftop solar panels in Shanghai, China. Photo by Jiri Rezac/The Climate Group

“If you want to win the climate change battle, it will be fought in the cities of the world,” WRI President and CEO Andrew Steer told participants at a forum on the role of urban areas in the global shift to clean energy.

New research from the International Energy Agency (IEA) confirms that cities represent 70 percent of the cost-effective emissions-reduction opportunities between now and 2050. In short, metropolitan areas will be crucial in determining whether the world succeeds in limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

IEA Director for Sustainability, Technology and Outlooks Kamel Ben Naceur. Photo by Katherine Peinhardt/WRI

Cities at the Frontlines of Climate Change

IEA Director for Sustainability, Technology and Outlooks Kamel Ben Naceur shared this and other findings at WRI’s June 24 event, “The Role of Cities in the Global Transition to Clean Energy.”

While Naceur underscored the vast challenges with curbing climate change in cities—they represent half the global population but 70 percent of emissions—he said that with an energy transformation, the 2-degree C target is still within reach.

Major areas for action include:

Heating and Cooling

About two-thirds of projected energy demand growth between now and 2050 will come from emerging and developing economies. “The elephant in the room is heating and cooling,” Naceur said.

It’s also an area rife with opportunity. The IEA report found that cities can reduce their heating and cooling demand by 25 percent without sacrificing comfort, through solutions such as solar-powered air conditioning. “This could be a very good combination because the max demand is in the daytime, when you have the maximum capacity for solar PV,” Naceur said.

Cities can also tap into efficiency to curb power demands for heating and cooling. Jennifer Layke, director of WRI’s Building Efficiency Initiative, pointed to theBuilding Efficiency Accelerator, which will help 30 cities in emerging economies scale up energy-efficient building practices and policies.

Sustainable Transport

Investments in roads and gas-powered cars may dominate the transport sector today, but IEA analysis finds that shifting much of this money toward electric vehicles (EVs) and metro and light rail could dramatically reduce emissions without increasing costs. While there were 1 million EVs in operation in 2015, Naceur says a 2-degree world would see a thousand times that many—1 billion EVs—by 2050. That’s a tall order, but emerging success stories like Beijing (where EV sales have grown exponentially over the past few years) offer hope.

Bridging Local and National Policies

Reinventing energy systems means national and local governments need to work together on complementary policies—a feat that’s proven difficult historically. “There’s significant potential for synergies,” Naceur said.

Take Norway: About 25 percent of the nation’s new cars are EVs, thanks to a combination of national policies like tax breaks and a network of charging stations in cities throughout the country. The Netherlands has Europe’s second-highest rate of EV registration, at just 1.8 percent of total cars.

A New Urban Future

These are just some of the bigger opportunities to spawn a clean energy revolution. To really bring down emissions to safe levels, cities will need to take action across all economic sectors. And with 80 percent of the world’s GDP, they’re in the best position to lead the charge against climate change.

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