How cities are paving the way to a carbon-neutral future

Global leaders gather to discuss overcoming the challenges

October 23, 2020

Three years ago, Helsinki embarked upon two ambitious goals: to eliminate coal as a source of heat by 2029, and to become carbon-neutral by 2035.

To help get there the city launched the Helsinki Energy Challenge, a global competition that will award €1 million to whoever develops the winning sustainable solution for urban heating.

“We decided to invite the whole rest of the world in order to help us find the best possible solutions,” says Jan Vapaavuori, Helsinki’s mayor, at the 2020 Bloomberg Green Festival last month. As of early September, the city has pulled in entries from 13 countries. Finalists will be announced in November.

Helsinki is just one of many cities striving to reduce carbon emissions and create cleaner, healthier environments. Vapaavuori, alongside other global leaders, gathered on a panel to talk about how to build a carbon neutral city.

Targeting the low-hanging fruit

Targeting low-hanging fruit, such as cutting back on wasted energy in buildings and refurbishing existing properties, was touted as a good way to get started.

For Cristina Gamboa, CEO of the World Green Building Council (WGBC), reducing energy consumption in buildings is the fastest and most cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions. However, it’s a process that’s often deprioritized. She says only 30% of cities worldwide have energy performance codes for buildings.

“Without energy efficiency and bulk regulation, cities will need much more renewable energy and infrastructure to meet any de-carbonization goal,” Gamboa says. “So the climate science is telling us that all new buildings should be built to the best standards we know, and that is net zero carbon buildings.”

But building to these high standards isn’t always ideal. For instance, demolishing and replacing the United Nations headquarters in New York City would have taken 35 to 70 years to offset the associated carbon costs through the new structures’ improved operating efficiency, a WGBC study showed.

“We should push for a renovation wave so existing buildings are refurbished to improve the energy performance,” Gamboa says.

The panelists also recommended starting small, at the municipal level with simple regulations, rather than requiring fundamental changes that can be cost-prohibitive.

Gregor Robertson, the former mayor of Vancouver and global ambassador with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, says the private sector can often enact these changes more cost effectively than the public sector and city leaders should feel empowered to push their private brethren further.

“Most city governments are elected to make decisions, creating the laws that guide the city,” he says. National governments aren’t off the hook, but mayors and city councils – and thus, the people who elect them – “can more quickly deliver and push the private sector to act.”

Many private-sector companies already are taking the initiative and seeing noteworthy results. For instance, one healthcare company operating more than 80 communities on the U.S. West Coast saved nearly $1 million in the first year of its solar-energy program. The JLL client’s installations produce enough energy annually to power a hospital spanning 1.35 million square feet.

Even larger cities are getting in on the green energy game. Cynthia Curtis, who leads JLL’s Sustainability Stakeholder Engagement, pointed to New York City, which set a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. To do so, the city passed Local Law 97, which caps carbon on most buildings larger than 25,000 square feet.

She also highlighted Singapore, where there are several initiatives ranging from collecting every drop of rainwater to creating floating solar panel farms. The results are already starting to pay off.

“It consistently tops the charts as Asia’s greenest city, with the highest quality of life,” Curtis says.

Different strokes for different folks

It’s important to remember that across the world, priorities often differ from city to city, even if they’re all moving toward the same end goal, says Amanda Eichel, Executive Director at the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy.

That’s why her organization is focused on mobilizing resources at the global level. By helping to improve cities’ access to information, data, climate-service providers, and resources from financial institutions, they provide what cities need to meet their specific priority, allowing everyone have an equal opportunity to work toward a carbon-neutral future.

“For cities that we work with in Africa, the priority may be access to energy in the first place rather than thinking about retrofitting buildings,” she says. “For cities in other regions, resilience and the impacts of climate now are even more important than the mitigation side of reducing emissions from transportation otherwise. So it really will depend on the local context, but in every case, the things that need to happen in those cities are roughly the same.”