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How cities can achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

How cities can achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050
Aug 31, 2021

Cities are the dominant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Cities need to create a path to net-zero carbon that considers city-specific features like climate, resources, and culture.

Much of the world’s population now live within cities. Cities and their suburbs are the dominant source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and current trends show that will continue to increase. Globally, cities consume 78% of the world’s primary energy and generate more than 60% of all carbon emissions, with buildings, energy production, and transport as the largest contributors. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in metropolitan areas—much of the migration occurring in developing nations—which will require more energy consumption and lead to the surge of GHG emissions.

Roadblocks to a net-zero carbon emissions goal and how to overcome them

Cities generate markets and cultures that come at a consequential cost and cause irrecoverable damage to the environment—climate change. Economies and society are significant barriers to achieving global targets such as the Paris Climate Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals.

About 25 of the world's megacities are responsible for generating half of the global GHG emissions. Decarbonizing urban living is a relevant and urgent need to meet global targets and meaningfully reduce GHG emissions.

Improvements to city transport, energy production, and infrastructure will play a significant role in reducing emissions. But eliminating city GHG emissions remains dependent on several technological and social advancements. Cities need to carefully consider net-zero planning because, without it, they stand to lose the very ambition that drives them—wealth, culture, quality of life, and investment.

According to a report written jointly by WWF and the iGDP (innovative Green Development Program), an increasing number of cities are opting for the net-zero carbon approach. Eighty-eight cities have expressed a willingness to reduce emissions by 2050. Among them, 66 have made explicit carbon-reduction commitments, and 34 have developed planning documents. The severe effects of climate change are already globally underway. Together, we must avoid future emissions to protect cities from hazards that already manifest.

How to chart a course to net-zero carbon emission in cities

1. Set GHG emission reduction pathways

A successful net-zero carbon city will have planned, set, and published GHG emission reduction targets. Those targets will clearly define GHG categories, emissions scope, distribution in sectors, enabling policy, timeline to achieve, and verification methodology. Most significantly, the action plan needs a specific approach to implementation.

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Our recommendation for a more ambitious GHG emission reduction pathway:

  • Cover all greenhouse gases defined in the Kyoto Protocol of UNFCCC in the scope of emission reductions.
  • At a minimum, 80% of the reduction target should be achieved through tangible mitigation measures rather than offset by an equivalent amount of CO2 absorption.
  • Cement the climate goals into the legislation for the sake of stability and consistency of policy measures.
  • Translate climate goals into concrete actions and policies through the preparation of plans to support the realization of these goals.

2. Establish an economic transition plan for moving to net-zero carbon

As many developing countries undergo rapid economic transformation—in the context of globalization—the move to net-zero is an upgrade towards a more robust economy. That attracts investors as well as safeguards economically weaker sections of society. A strong economic growth plan will identify how the investment into net-zero measures and will generate opportunities for new investments, creativity, savings, efficiencies, and a skilled workforce.

3. Be resilient to hazards, including climate change

Safeguarding the efforts and investment on a net-zero carbon plan from ongoing climate change and other hazards is essential. Today, resilience is not an entirely new concept in the international community. According to the definition of ICLEI, urban resilience means the ability to fully benefit from shifts. Resilience implies that the city can anticipate, prevent, absorb, and recover from shocks and stresses, improve essential basic response structures, and functions while integrating the different aspects of urbanization, sustainability, development, and climate change. For this reason, cities and their stakeholders should be fully aware of the importance to integrate climate change adaptation and socio-economic considerations into an overarching resilience strategy, and to seek the reconciliation between GHG emission reduction and resilience as a net-zero carbon emission city.

Net-zero carbon emission cities action plans: lessons learned

  • Net-zero emission measures must be drawn from evidence on what efforts can make the biggest impact using resources efficiently.
  • Inclusiveness of city authorities and city communities can make the action plans more practical and cost-effective to deliver.
  • Citizens and investors care for liveability and prioritize efforts that result in improvements in quality of life, work, nature, and leisure—such as clean air.
  • Ensure policies and incentive mechanisms are in place that will encourage investors, local businesses, and citizens to engage with security.
  • Urban physical planning and land-use measures can significantly help to reduce demand for energy and resources.
  • Build systems that integrate multiple sectors to work together and avoid silos.
  • Use data and digital technologies to measure and monitor the impact of net-zero emission pathways.
  • Partner with other cities to improve by exchanging knowledge and lessons.

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Emission measures work differently across the world

It’s important to tailor the net-zero carbon solution to city-specific climate, resources, and cultures. For instance, Copenhagen is successfully harnessing variable wind power, part of an effort to make it the first carbon-neutral city by 2025. Boston is pioneering a master plan to adapt and transform 47 miles of shoreline that will increase access to open space and protect the city during major flooding events.

The design of Toyota Woven City—a 175-acre experiment at the foothills of Mount Fuji—is going to power it with hydrogen fuel-cell, geothermal, and solar energy. Glasgow has already established the first Ultra-Low Emission Zone and will turn to other parts of Glasgow’s economy that can be decarbonized such as transport and heating, as well as continued investment in the electricity grid to support the increasingly low carbon city. And Pontevedra—a historic Spain city—is famous for its pedestrianized city center without any motor vehicles.

Net-zero cities for China

In China, cities account for around 60% of CO2 emissions. Critically, cities and other local governments are following the nation's lead by setting ambitious peaking and post-peaking emissions reduction targets. Since 2010, China’s central government has carried out 87 low carbon pilots, comprised of 81 cities and six provinces. Over 60 of these pilots have committed to peak carbon emissions before 2025.

If local governments put forward more ambitious targets for their absolute carbon caps and early peaking dates in their new five-year plans, China will have a far better chance of achieving an early carbon emissions peak.

The pledge made by President Xi in September 2020 to the UN General Assembly to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, doubtlessly, is encouraging Chinese cities to make more ambitious promises and take more progressive actions in the perspective of net-zero carbon.

It started from the zones in cities. For instance, Guangdong, Beijing, Shanxi, Yunnan, Shanghai, Zhejiang, and several other provinces and cities have proposed work plans for piloting near-zero carbon zones.

One good example is the Meishan Near-zero Carbon Zone in Ningbo city. Meishan has released ambitious quantitative near-zero carbon goals. In the long term, Meishan will achieve carbon neutrality around 2050. Takeaways from Meishan include:

  • Strong government coordination and leadership
  • Climate-driven planning methodology
  • Innovative business models
  • Supportive fiscal policy

In our observation, exploring new mechanisms to develop near-zero carbon zones is a continuous effort in China. The urban development model of near-zero carbon zones is setting a new international standard for best practice and has the potential to be scaled up to the whole of China and beyond, which will be the foundation to the blossom of net-zero carbon cities in the future.

How to secure necessary financing mechanisms

One of the principal challenges that cities will encounter as they transition to a net-zero carbon future is securing the financing to deliver the necessary infrastructure. Particularly for cities located in developing or less developed countries.

One estimation is that the investments required to reduce urban emissions by 90% would be $1.83 trillion—about 2% of global GDP—per year, which would generate annual savings worth $2.80 trillion by 2030 and $6.98 trillion by 2050. To reach these volumes of investment, all types of financing will be created in an innovative way, public and private, ranging from commercial banks and private equity to multilateral development banks.

Apart from traditional financings, such as capital raised by issuing municipal bonds—including municipal green bonds—often underwritten by investment banks, access to capital via commercial bank loans, more and more innovative financing tools have been applied to renew and accelerate the investment into city decarbonization, such as energy performance contracts (EPCs), third-party ownership, green bank or energy efficiency investment corporations, on-bill, city-fund, energy loan, subsidized or blended loans, public-private partnership (PPP), credit enhancement, property assessed clean energy (PACE), and so on.

In conclusion, city stakeholders can kick-start their ambition for a greener, resilient, and inclusive future by carefully mapping their carbon footprint and move forward on sectors that will have the highest impact on GHG emissions. Those efforts will require investment in technology, urban planning, and upskilling people. That can be mapped out in the economic transition plan. Last, but not least, all investment into urban development must be resilient to multiple hazards to get the most out of the investment. Therefore, risk reduction and resilience planning are key. Cities must include their citizens throughout the development of plans. That will ensure plans are cost-effective and easier to implement with ownership from all aspects of society.

Meet the authors
  1. Shu Wang, Senior Manager, Climate Specialist

    Shu is one of China’s leading specialists in carbon pricing and low carbon transition, with experience in both the public and private sectors. View bio

  2. Ripin Kalra, Technical Director, Urban Development and Resilience

    Ripin leads our urban analytics, planning, and climate resilience work with a significant focus on nature-based solutions, sustainable food systems, urban livelihoods, and resource-efficient development. View bio