Five cities proving that we can quit fossil fuels

An oil processing plant in Tula, Mexico. Image: Getty.

Powering a city is a major undertaking: all that economic activity, culture and innovation requires a lot of fuel. As a result, while cities house just over half the world’s population, but are responsible for nearly 80 per cent of the world’s energy consumption.

The result of all this is rising greenhouse gas emissions.  This year looks set to smash all previous temperature records, and cities are no strangers to the consequences of a hotter planet. From rising sea levels, encroaching on coastline properties, to droughts and heatwaves that threaten citizens and businesses, the likes of Bangkok, Paris, New York and countless others know what climate change looks like first hand.

So what can be done about it? Weaning our cities off fossil fuels, the most polluting sources of energy, is key – but this is much more easily said than done. Many city governments lack the ability to directly control the energy mix of their electricity as policies are often set at state or national levels. With few national governments setting ambitious goals to be fossil fuel-free, the odds appear stacked against cities.

Despite these challenges, some major cities are showing that it is possible to reduce fossil fuel usage. This year over 300 cities joined in CDP’s cities programme, sharing information on how they are taking actions to reduce carbon emissions and managing climate risks. Over a third of these cities told us they have some kind of renewable energy goal in place. More promisingly still, some, including the city of Aspen in the US, have in fact already declared themselves fossil fuel-free.

Here are five cities already making the shift to a low-carbon future.

Cape Town, South Africa

Locals in Cape Town, who affectionately refer to it as the Mother City, are familiar with the country’s ongoing issues with energy supply and demand. Over the past six years the price of electricity has jumped by 340 per cent, putting a strain on local businesses and households. The city’s current energy mix is heavily reliant on coal, which supplies up to 72 per cent of its electricity.

However with growing concern over energy security and the city’s high carbon footprint, officials are catalysing a transition to renewables. Cape Town aims to source 10 per cent of the city’s electricity from renewable energy by 2020 – a change that will save greenhouse gas emissions by 1m metric tons. 


Houston, Texas

Texas may be known as an oil-rich state, but its most populous city, Houston, happens to be the largest municipal purchaser of green power in the US. The city estimates it is using almost 623,000 mWh of green power per year, which is equivalent to the amount of energy needed to power over 55,000 homes annually.  

This power plan benefits locals too – Houston reports being able to maintain a relatively flat power price while increasing the amount of renewable energy in its mix, proving that going green doesn’t have to be costly.

Stockholm, Sweden

Sweden’s capital had already set an ambitious goal to be 100 per cent fossil fuel-free by 2050, but decided it should aim to achieve that target ten years sooner. Stockholm is making this task easier by first reducing the amount of overall energy it uses, then replacing fossil fuels with alternative sources such as biogas, biodiesel and solar. It doesn’t have far to go: fossil fuels currently make up just 9 per cent of its energy mix for power.

Sydney, Australia

Sydney proudly boasts one of the most ambitious emissions reduction targets in the country, and is hoping to achieve that in part through obtaining 30 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.  It also has the farthest to go compared to other cities on this list in this regard – its current energy mix is dominated entirely by coal.

The city’s renewable energy master plan draws on solar PV, solar thermal hot water, wind energy and geothermal from within the city’s boundary and other technologies (such as onshore wind turbines) to meet its goal. 

Tokyo, Japan

One of the world’s largest mega-cities and among the first to earn that title, Tokyo has a big task in powering its 62 sprawling municipalities. The city is currently heavily reliant on fossil fuels, but officials are aiming to get a fifth of its total energy from renewable sources by 2024.

Part of its plan to achieve this is to establish a system in which consumers can chose clean energy – giving power, literally, to the people.

Kyra Appleby is head of cities at CDP.

 
 
 
 

What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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