Cities and Net Zero: What Policymakers Need to Consider

Cities and Net Zero: What Policymakers Need to Consider

Henriette Ruhrmann

Cities are major players in combating climate change—they produce substantially more CO2 emissions per person than rural areas. How fast cities can mobilise to reach net zero will determine our success in ending the climate emergency. Cities began to commit to a net zero future a quarter of a century ago. Thus far, no city has achieved carbon neutrality. However, creative and innovative urban approaches to reduce net emissions promise new leaps towards net zero.

IPPO Cities convened city policymakers and net zero researchers at a policy roundtable event, chaired by IPPO’s net zero expert—Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan. Together with Basil Mahfouz, he leads research mapping the supply and demand of research on net zero. The evidence reaching carbon neutrality is abundant and growing. However, the challenge is to link it effectively with policymakers’ demand for information.

The IPPO Cities roundtable on “Net Zero” addressed this challenge by facilitating a conversation among policymakers working towards net zero. Several key lessons for urban policymakers emerge from the discussion.

Setting socially conscious net zero targets is key

Over the past four years, the share of global GDP covered by net zero targets has leapt from 16% to 92%, according to Oxford’s Net Zero Tracker. One in five cities with over half a million inhabitants has announced a net zero target. However, the quality of such net zero commitments matters: For example, how credible is the commitment? Are all emissions covered or only certain sectors or territories? What is the ratio of planned emission reduction versus compensation? And is the impact of the net zero transition equitably distributed?

Changing how we live, move, and consume energy in a city creates new winners and losers. Cities stand out in accounting for equity and fairness in their net zero strategies—at higher rates than regions or companies.

A significant area of concern around urban net zero targets is data reporting. City policymakers at the roundtable agreed that the lack of net-zero data and reporting impedes their policy work. Failing to report data is also a lost opportunity to demonstrate publicly where cities make progress, helping both the inhabitants and other cities. The Oxford Net Zero Tracker data highlights that to date, less than half of cities with net zero targets have specified reporting mechanisms.

Cities need to commit to large investments

Copenhagen, striving to be the first carbon-neutral capital by 2025, recently announced it would fail to meet its ambitious target. Unexpectedly, a planned carbon capture project at the local waste-to-energy plant was unable to qualify for national state funding. The case demonstrates, and city policymakers on the panel confirm, that the investments necessary for the net zero transition are substantial—from updating residential homes or public buses, to the electricity grid itself.

Moreover, cities and their inhabitants face sunk costs invested in the existing infrastructure. In Rotterdam, the rising energy costs made quick-fix energy-conservation home updates very popular. Residents could request renter-friendly “energy boxes” with products such as insulation tapes, power strips with off switches, or LED lights. However, labour and supply shortages continue to raise the prices of such energy-saving products.

City council projects can be streamlined for the climate emergency

Large investments are not an easy lift for cities. They need to be democratically sustained and thoroughly vetted in time-consuming processes. The multi-layered decision process furthermore creates uncertainty for private investors. Bristol has taken decisive action to move faster toward net zero. The city declared a climate emergency in 2018. Five years later, Bristol finalised a world-first partnership to make the city carbon-neutral by 2030.

Bristol City Leap is a twenty-year public-private venture between the Bristol City Council, Ameresco, and Vattenfall Heat UK. The unique feature of the partnership is that projects meeting a set of pre-set criteria are guaranteed council funding, which speeds up approval processes and creates certainty for private investors. Moreover, the concession allows the strategic partner Ameresco to combine long-term projects strategically. Bristol City Council acknowledges that the streamlined process creates risks for the Council but considers the approach the best option to confront the climate emergency.

Citizens need to feel ownership of their city’s net zero strategy

Net zero transitions are more effective if citizens embrace the changes in their city’s infrastructure. New formats to engage citizens in policy decisions help residents feel ownership of these changes in their neighbourhoods.

Brussels created the world’s first permanent climate assembly. The assembly’s one hundred citizen members change each year, ensuring that more and more voices shape Brussel’s climate agenda. Similarly, Bristol created a demographically representative citizens’ assembly of sixty citizens to deliver recommendations on the climate strategy for Bristol’s city council. Rotterdam offers opportunities for low-income residents without roof space to invest in solar panels via citizens’ corporations.

To highlight novel public engagement formats, IPPO Cities dedicated its March 2023 policy roundtable to “Local Democratic Renewal”. Read more about the key lessons for policymakers from the panel discussion here.