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

by Johanna Partin | Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance
Monday, 1 March 2021 12:42 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Commuters walk past bicycles for rent, which hang on racks, along a main street in Makati city, metro Manila January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From New York’s grades for green buildings to Oslo’s innovative climate budgets, fresh ideas are taking hold

Johanna Partin is the director of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, which just launched a new multi-million-dollar Game Changer Fund, is a collaboration of leading global cities working to achieve carbon neutrality in the next 10-20 years.

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 – decarbonizing 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 decarbonizing 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. Incentivizing 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 decarbonization and create ways, like cities above, to normalize it.

Second, on decarbonizing 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-fueled 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.

This work requires public and-political will-building. London’s ultra-low emission zones, Stockholm’s congestion pricing, and parking pricing are some effective ways to reduce both emissions and congestion in city centers.

But they remain politically challenging and could disproportionately impact low-income communities. To win hearts and minds, then, cities need to show the benefits – for everyone - of less-polluted, less congested cities.

Third, on regenerative systems. Cities are moving beyond ‘take, make and dispose’ into ‘renew, restore, and regenerate’ models.

This is new frontier for cities to put carbon back into the soil (see Boulder), build circular economies (see Amsterdam), or tackle consumption-based emissions (see European cities).

But we must eliminate emissions across the supply chain, use nature-based solutions to draw carbon out of the atmosphere, and deploy circular approaches to eliminate waste.

Fourth, on transformative governance. We know what climate-friendly governance looks like. One innovation are climate budgets, which Oslo modeled. It budgets for emissions like cities budget finances, with each department responsible for a percentage of the city’s emission reduction target.

Another innovation, which Portland’s pioneering, is people- and equity-centered climate planning. Cities are rapidly innovating new ways to govern.

Fifth, on carbon neutral districts. Most people don’t know what carbon neutrality looks like. That’s why we need to visualize it, showing what’s possible when zeroing out emissions across multiple sectors (energy supply, buildings, transportation, waste, etc.) and entire neighborhoods.

Time for more showing, less telling, of the benefits of carbon neutrality.

These five fronts forecast the hard work ahead and what’s needed to cut emissions in half in 10 years. This is what we’ll be funding and it’s what we need other funders to step up and support, too. The time is now; the clock is ticking.

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