Renewable Cities: a place for climate action

Renewable Cities: a place for climate action

By Keane Gruending

November 24, 2014

As the months pass by, and we prepare to pencil 2014 into the record books as the warmest year on record, we wait and watch the developments leading to the most high stakes climate negotiations of all—COP21 in Paris next year. While recent agreements to cap emissions in the US and China are a positive step, we’re accustomed to the gravity of international affairs leading to disappointing climate negotiations and national policy. Lately, uncertainty has been the new high bar.

But there’s a place where climate action is alive and well.

In this place, ambitious targets are set and progress measured; rapid innovation on all fronts, from heating to electricity to transportation, in forms of business and technology, are underway; leaders aren’t afraid to invoke climate change; and policies are passed quickly, with minimal discord. Ideas are tested on small scales and adapted and improved.

This place is the city.

Urban environments house the majority of the world’s population, some four billion people, and will welcome 2.5 billion newcomers by 2050. Already, eight out of ten North Americans live there and soon that number will be nine out of ten.

Cities account for 70% of the world’s carbon footprint and hold many of the influencing levers on emissions: urban design, transportation, heating/cooling, and electricity generation. As ambitious as some of them are on emissions reduction goals—Tokyo, 25% by 2020, Chicago and Hamburg, 80% by 2050—increasingly, cities are staking out control and targets on renewable energy (RE).

Renewables are already an important part of the world’s energy mix, providing 20% of global power, half of which are ‘modern’ renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal. In places like the US, renewables have been competing with fossil fuels in terms of new generating capacity over the past five years. There’s no doubt that RE is growing swiftly as technology improves, costs decline, and as supporting policies are implemented. You know this intuitively. Chances are that you live or work in an urban environment; if you close your eyes to project into the future, it’s likely that your vision will include clean and technologically advanced cities--distributed renewables, advanced architecture, and electric vehicles, not pollution, wasted energy, or road congestion. It’s a place that that’s synonymous with better living.

There’s consensus that renewables are going to be a dominant form of energy, it’s only a question of how much and how fast. As a matter of fact, there is the technological, economic, and resource potential for renewables to become the primary form of energy. Period. At the moment, there is an emerging movement for 100% renewable energy on national, regional, and municipal scales and a number of cities, including Malmo, Sweden and Reykjavik, Iceland, have already implemented 100% renewable energy in at least one sector (electricity, heating, or transportation).

Moreover, a number of influential global cities have already committed to some form of 100% renewable energy by at least 2020. They include: San Francisco, Sydney, Copenhagen, Fukushima, and Munich, to name a few. The list of cities committed to near 100% RE is long, as is the roster of small cities that have implemented 100% RE, such as Greensburg, Kansas or Samso, Denmark. Of course, these forward leaps in renewables implementation are supported by integrated urban design and enabled by energy efficiency; avoided demand for energy is at best genius and at worst prudent. And, in many cases, supportive state and national policies, such as Denmark’s plan to leave fossil fuels behind by 2050, also play a role in driving local innovation.

Setting an ambitious target – and being able to work backwards from it, allows city and energy planners to put the right pieces of the puzzle in place to achieve something powerful. Cities are taking a major leadership position on climate via their actions on local energy. But, they’re managing energy demand and powering up wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass for a plethora of other reasons too: economic development, job creation, environmental quality, energy security, and safety. It’s no coincidence that these considerations improve livability; local governments wouldn’t implement renewable energy measures without broad support from citizens. That political support goes hand in hand with local benefits derived from an urban energy system that can be governed by the community. There is also the opportunity of positioning a city as a leader and innovator. Initiatives like Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan or Malmo’s Cleantech City have the potential to attract workers or prime an export market.

It’s clear that paralyzed national and international climate action is now giving way to the acceleration of urban upstarts, but has the era of the urban renewables arrived? With 100% RE cities like Copenhagen and San Francisco creating the model, the answer is that the sun is rising on Renewable Cities.

Every burgeoning movement needs a gathering place, a platform to define itself, share knowledge, and build capacity. For cities wanting to take advantage of the benefits of clean local energy, that place is Renewable Cities, a new global initiative of the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, BC.

Renewable Cities builds on the existing leadership and supports cities through the transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy by providing the convening capacity, networks, and meeting space. It has been co-designed by thought leaders working in municipalities and government, the private sector, utilities, and civil society. As a first step, a Global Learning Forum, held in Vancouver, BC from 13-15 May, 2015 will convene global leaders in a solutions-focused dialogue. Here, implementers, innovators, and leaders will network and learn through small group capacity building sessions across four streams: legislation and policy; building citizen and political will; finance, investment, and the business case; and technology and infrastructure.

If you’re interested in learning more, visit the Renewable Cities website and sign up for program updates or register to take part in the Global Learning Forum. 

Icon photo courtesy of adrimcm/Flickr


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