New technologies and smart investment can dramatically reduce the carbon emissions of the world's cities
- Cities consume more than two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions.
- Dozens of major cities have announced targets to reach net zero, most of them by 2050.
- Cities can often act faster and more efficiently to decrease emissions than regional or national governments.
Economist Impact, sponsored by Osborne Clarke, an international legal practice, produced a report on technologies that will play a role in the decarbonization of today's cities. The findings, published in the report Sustainable Disruption: 12 decarbonization technologies for cities, are based on a literature review, expert panel and research program conducted between June and September 2021.
The COP26 summit
Published against the background of the COP26 summit, the report seeks to provide insight to lawmakers, businesses and institutional actors about the current state of affairs of disruptive technologies to support urban decarbonization and what the future of those technologies might look like. The report, like the outcome of COP26 itself, acknowledges that there is no silver bullet for climate change in cities. However, there is an arsenal of technologies that can be deployed to drive forward the decarbonization imperative.
The report judged technologies based on three categories – scalability, impact and investment – and then broke down the findings into three areas of technology: building and construction, city infrastructure and transport.
Understanding the energy costs of cities
The buildings and construction sector accounts for 38% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Running buildings, including heating and cooling them, produces 28%, and the buildings construction industry emits another 10%, according to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction.
City infrastructure is similarly energy demanding, with experts estimating that more efficient waste management could cut 10-15% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.
Finally, transportation accounts for one fifth of global CO2 emissions and, in high-income countries, it can be the largest segment of an individual’s carbon footprint.
When it comes to buildings, construction and infrastructure, the emphasis in innovation has been on reducing the carbon footprint to provide similar services and products as earlier. Thus, technologies like low carbon cement have enormous potential to reduce the carbon footprint of urban development.
A similar effect is seen with some of the technologies used in urban infrastructure: innovations such as district heating and cooling grids replace less efficient systems to provide identical services.
When looking at the infrastructure and transport sectors, the opportunities are more diverse. On the one hand, there is the possibility of energy efficient travel modelled off of existing, less efficient options: hydrogen or electric vehicles, for example. Then, we have disruptive innovations such as MaaS (Mobility as a Service), which aims to replace personal vehicles with shared transport options organized by digital platforms. Finally, there are alternatives that drastically reduce or eliminate the need for transport at all, such as unified communications infrastructure that facilitates teleworking and other essential uses of connectivity.
Technology alone is not enough
Many of the technologies explored in this report could play an important role in reaching this goal, but more incentives and investment are urgently needed to scale them. In many cases, the widespread application of these technologies can bring additional benefits – cleaner air, lower energy bills, savings on commuter costs and job creation. However, scaling them requires regulatory, policy and financial incentives.
For example, lack of policy incentives is impacting the uptake of low-carbon cement and concrete alternatives. Conversely, national/regional targets backed by public funds have played a vital role in scaling up smart meters/grids.
The majority of technologies need substantial additional public and/or private investment to scale. Even technologies that have high impact and scalability potential receive low amounts of funding. These include low-carbon cement and concrete alternatives, waste robotics and vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies.
Technologies that support efficiency across key sectors will have the greatest impact on urban decarbonization. For example, high efficiency heat pumps, district heating and cooling systems and smart grids/meters all improve energy efficiency and score well in the impact category of our research.
However, it is also clear that technologies alone will not decarbonize cities. For example, digital twins, building automation systems (BAS) and smart meter technologies are useful tools that can be used to monitor energy usage and emissions, but these data need to be acted on to avoid or reduce emissions. Greater public and private investment across all technologies is required.
Among the ten cities studied, policies or funding were only available for an average of 16 out of the long list of 26 technologies researched. Private investors could support cities looking to implement technologies with high upfront costs. Meanwhile, public funding is required to incentivize citizen uptake of decarbonizing technologies.
About the author
Brittany Pheiffer Noble is a communications executive at Osborne Clarke in Brussels and a Vice-Chair of AmCham Belgium’s Communications Committee.