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.

 
 
 
 

More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.