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.
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.
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 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.
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.