Cities on a quest for carbon neutrality

Published by Flemmich Webb on

By Garry Booth

It’s not every day a government decides to move its capital city, but that’s exactly what Indonesia is planning to do. Literally sinking as a result of rising sea levels and poor planning decisions, Jakarta is to be replaced as the country’s administrative centre by a new city that will be built 2,000km away on the island of Borneo.

In a controversial decision, Indonesia is planning to spend US$35bn on a brand new metropolis incorporating five satellite towns sited on restored oil palm plantations, surrounded by environmentally important wetlands and tropical forests. The initial phase of construction is to be completed by 2025.

The government believes it needs to move fast. Jakarta is collapsing because inadequate water supply means too much groundwater is being illegally pumped out. At the same time, sea levels are rising as a result of climate change: it’s believed that 95% of Jakarta’s coastal area could be under water by 2050.

Jakarta might be an extreme emergency case, but all major cities face having to take action to ensure a sustainable future, for the sake of their residents and their local economy. Cities are on the frontline of the climate emergency and many are already feeling the effects of extreme weather events such as flood, windstorms, droughts and wildfire.

Lloyd’s City Risk Index points out that cities present a clear sustainability challenge – they account for 70% of greenhouse emissions and global waste, and 60% of the planet’s energy consumption. But they also face the economic consequences of climate change. Climate events will cost cities in the index $122.98bn annually with temperate and tropical windstorms accounting for $66.31bn every year and flood potentially adding a further $42.91bn.

Several cities around the world are striving to mitigate climate change by drastically reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Take Copenhagen: the Danish capital has been working since 2009 to become net carbon neutral. Setting an ambitious target the city is aiming to reinvent its energy and transport infrastructure by 2025.

Copenhagen’s plan to green the city includes a 20% reduction in both heat and commercial electricity consumption; 75% of all journeys to be by bike, on foot, or by public transport; the biogasification of all organic waste and; 100% of the city’s heating requirements to be met by renewables.

Bo Asmus Kjeldgaard is CEO and founder of Greenovation, a Danish consultancy that specialises in sustainability for municipalities. Former mayor of Copenhagen, he was a driving force behind the city’s climate adaptation efforts and its ambition to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital.

Kjeldgaard says policymakers can no longer sit on their hands: “If your ‘house’ is on fire you don’t wait or ask if somebody else is coming to do something about it. You act now. We have already seen storms, floods, rising sea levels, more climate refugees than ‘normal’ refugees. 28% of species are already dead, and this will accelerate in the future. We are close to a point of no return. If we don’t act, our quality of life will be really poor. It’s everyone’s responsibility to act now.” Kjeldgaard says there are sound economic reasons to start investing immediately. “In Copenhagen we made a calculation: if we act now and secure the city it will cost DKR11bn, and we will use the money in a way that Copenhageners get more parks and a better quality of life. If we don’t do anything, the bill will be DKR33bn – but in this scenario we only pay for the damage left by storms, floods and other events.”

Copenhagen belongs to the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA), a global network of 21 cities that are committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. The cities, which together represent over $5.7trn GDP are urgently redesigning their essential energy, building, transportation and waste systems to completely eliminate carbon emissions and improve quality of life for communities and businesses.

CNCA member Adelaide, for example aims to obtain 50% of its energy through renewables; as part of its emissions reduction target policy Seattle is aiming for 30% passenger vehicle electrification by 2030; Amsterdam’s emissions reduction ambitions includes making local traffic emission-free by 2030 and for the city to be natural gas-free by 2040.

San Francisco-based CNCA director Johanna Partin says that cities must act to reduce emissions because national governments are not taking the issue seriously enough.
“Cities are where the impacts of climate change are really being felt. Local government really needs to respond to that. It’s why a growing number of cities are recognising their role and demonstrating the ambition and leadership that we need to see at other levels of government,” she says.

Many cities can do a lot around energy and transport infrastructure, she says. For example, if a city controls building codes, they can require all new construction to be net zero.
“If they don’t then they need to lobby the body that is responsible – because without new building controls we’re not going to meet our carbon neutrality goals. Retrofitting existing buildings is one of the biggest needs and also one of the biggest challenges,” Partin adds.

But who is going to fund cities’ sustainability efforts? Partin reckons that investors are waking up to the need for finance to be made available to support carbon neutrality projects.
“However, some cities are not able to fund the early stages of the necessary projects themselves and have to rely more on government or philanthropic funding – in the US, Australia and the UK for example,” she explains.

“So at the CNCA we’re very focussed on helping cities develop the policies that are needed to develop a carbon neutral future. To that end, we raise money from philanthropic sources to provide that money to cities, where they don’t have sufficient access to it from government sources.”

The argument that cities must choose between economic and environmental objectives does not hold water. “CNCA member cities have seen greenhouse gas emissions go down while their populations have been rising and their economies have been growing,” she says. “The data shows that the healthier the environment is for your businesses and citizens, the better your economy will do.”