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.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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