Cities on their way to being fossil fuel free

Four cities in the US, including conservative Georgetown, Texas, have switched to 100% fossil fuel free electricity.

Copenhagen will be 100% fossil fuel free or carbon neutral in 10 years.  “We see this an an investment which will pay itself back in jobs and good business,” says Copenhagen’s mayor, Frank Jensen.  Vancouver will do it in less than 15 now, by 2030.

Adelaide, Stockholm and a host of others in China, Europe and elsewhere which will be zero carbon within 20 years.

Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh and 45 other British cities have just signed a pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Paris, shocked by recent heatwaves and its air pollution, is to double its network of bike lanes to 870 miles, create 10,000 secure bike parking spaces, and offer financial incentives for those buying electric and conventional bikes. It and 21 other cities also pledged last week to spend 10% of their annual budgets on “resilience-building goals” without raising additional taxes.

Seattle leads the US with a pledge to go carbon neutral by 2050, and more than a dozen other major metropolitan areas have pledged an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. In China, driven by the need to reduce air pollution, Beijing and 10 other Chinese cities have agreed to peak greenhouse gas emissions as early as 2020 – a decade ahead of the existing target for the world’s biggest emitter.

In total, more than 450 cities with a combined population of nearly 1 billion people have now pledged to reduce emissions by more than 50% in around 15 years by encouraging walking and cycling, reducing emissions from landfill, switching to renewables, and making people change the way they travel.

Mark Watts, director of the C40 group of 83 large cities addressing climate change, said: “The national state is the same late-18th-century model designed to defend its borders, not to solve problems. But the job of the mayor demands action. These days, people in all the world’s big cities people want much the same: clean air, public transport and cycles and not cars. There is no debate any more about there being a choice between economic growth or climate change action. Mayors have to use their powers to the maximum.”

Karl Pope, environment adviser to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, now the UN’s special envoy on cities. “Cities are where emissions are. They are mostly consumers of fossil fuels so they would like to use them as little as possible; they have a natural instinct to save on fossil fuels. Also they are not very ideological. Improving quality of life is seen as a good.”

Pope identifies three groups who will lead others on climate: “Cities in Nordic countries that with will be meticulous about everything. Then there are a few in Latin America and Africa which will be unbelievably creative. A third group is in East Asia and China which will do things on a massive scale.”

In Europe, Copenhagen plans to invest 1.5bn euros over the next few years to make the transition and adapt to climate change.  “We should not be afraid of making cities greener,” he says. “Copenhagen shows it is good business and the investments pay themselves off . Mayors have to act because cities are affected by climate change, too. We cannot wait for the heads of state – citizens expect mayors to do something.”

Air pollution and health is driving cities in China and India to reduce emissions. Reducing the use of diesel or petrol in Delhi or Beijing not only greatly reduces climate emissions, it reduces respiratory and lung diseases, heart attacks and cancers. “There’s nothing like death to focus the mind,” says Pope.

But the scale and speed with which some Chinese cities are switching from fossil fuels is shocking, he says. Shenzu, Wuhan and others are, for example, in the process of replacing their large diesel bus fleets with thousands of all-electric buses. “We’re going to build a recyclable society for our future generations. We want mounds of gold and silver as well as green water and mountains,” said Liu Ziqing, party secretary of Caidian District, Wuhan.

Economists now calculate that if cities invested in bikes, walking, more efficient transport, efficient buildings and waste management, this low-carbon future could save them $17trillion a year. According to New Climate Economy (NCE), a group set up examine the costs and benefits of addressing climate change, the savings would come from stimulating economic activity, decreasing healthcare costs, reducing poverty, and cutting the costs associated with urban sprawl, such as time and productivity lost to traffic congestion.

“For too long, there’s been the same old argument used to prevent bold action on climate change, which is there’s some sort of trade-off between economic prosperity and climate action,” says Nick Godfrey, an author of the report for NCE. “In cities, that is a false choice. Actually, there is a significant confluence between promoting economic growth and prosperity, and climate action.”

Montevideo, Uruguay and the whole country have made even more dramatic progress, using clear decision-making, a supportive regulatory environment and a strong partnership between the public and private sector.  As a result, energy investment – mostly for renewables, but also liquid gas – in Uruguay over the past five years has surged to $7bn, or 15% of the country’s annual GDP. That is five times the average in Latin America.  “What we’ve learned is that renewables is just a financial business,” says Ramón Méndez, Uruguay’s head of climate policy. “The construction and maintenance costs are low, so as long as you give investors a secure environment, it is a very attractive.”

Windfarms now feed into hydro power plants so that dams can maintain their reservoirs longer after rainy seasons. According to Méndez, this has reduced vulnerability to drought by 70% – no small benefit considering a dry year used to cost the country nearly 2% of GDP.  This is not the only benefit for the economy. “For three years we haven’t imported a single kilowatt hour,” Méndez says. “We used to be reliant on electricity imports from Argentina, but now we export to them. Last summer, we sold a third of our power generation to them.”  Industry – mostly agricultural processing – is now powered predominantly by biomass cogeneration plants.  Uruguay proved that renewables can reduce generation costs, can meet well over 90% of electricity demand without the back-up of coal or nuclear power plants, and the public and private sectors can work together effectively in this field.

“We had to go through a crisis to reach this point. We spent 15 years in a bad place,” Méndez said. “But in 2008, we launched a long-term energy policy that covered everything … Finally we had clarity.”  That new direction made possible the rapid transition that is now reaping rewards.  In less than 10 years, Uruguay has slashed its carbon footprint without government subsidies or higher consumer costs.  Renewables provide 94.5% of the country’s electricity, prices are lower than in the past relative to inflation. There are also fewer power cuts because a diverse energy mix means greater resilience to droughts.  No longer does oil account for 27% of the country’s imports, as it did 15 years ago.  Now the biggest item is wind turbines.

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