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The Planet of Cities: Cities can be the engines of the net zero transition

Greg Clark is an urbanist and writes here in a personal capacity. He is Group Advisor, Future Cities at HSBC, Chair of the Connected Places Catapult, and a global authority on city futures. In this month’s column he defines the mandate for cities to lead on decarbonisation.

Greg Clark
2 August 2021

It’s been a busy few weeks on the global urbanism stage. Many cities and city groupings are gearing up for COP26 – readying themselves to address the array of tectonic imperatives scheduled for discussion in Glasgow in November. For the next few months, I propose that we use this column to chart the emerging story of COP26 and the world’s cities.

Let’s start with a quick review. From where I stand, it appears that the stars are aligning. A global consensus is forming on the science of climate change, with the few remaining refuseniks looking increasingly marginalised. Governments are largely in agreement on the need for bold multi-lateral action. The global energy sector is literally feeling the heat and making a more rapid transition than any of us might have dared hope. At the same time, we see major decarbonisation strategies emerging in many sectors, including transport, real estate, food, and utilities. And just last week the global financial community stepped up. The Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) unites 160 financial institutions and firms, together responsible for assets in excess of US$70 trillion. It will be chaired by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney.

So where do cities fit into this picture?

By 2080, the earth will be populated by close to 10 billion people, 80% of whom will live in roughly 10,000 cities. We must ensure that these cities are well-run, low carbon, liveable places if this precious and finite planet is to successfully accommodate such numbers. We must treat them as sharing platforms for the provision of primary services and amenities. Well-run urban areas can decouple environmental degradation from population growth.

Well-run cities and towns can decouple environmental degradation from population growth.

There is now a clear understanding of what the decarbonisation of cities will entail. The Coalition for Urban Transitions has set out a vision of clean, connected and compact cities, supported by mass electrification, materials efficiency, and better mixed land uses. The message is clear: the shape and constitution of cities directly impact their carbon outputs.

But much of the debate so far has centred on sector-based strategies – see the aforementioned action on energy, industry, transport, property, food and waste. Such sector-based work is, of course, essential. But on its own, it is not sufficient. We need similarly robust place-based strategies and leadership.

Why? What is it that cities and place leadership bring to decarbonisation? I see seven essential ingredients of local leadership in this decarbonisation process.

First, cities can play a unique and specific role in setting local vision and ambition and sequencing otherwise disparate efforts. In order to set the pace of overall decarbonisation at a municipal level it is necessary that actions are motivated and coordinated. City leaders are perfectly placed for this – we have already seen such work reaping dividends in Oslo, Tokyo, Medellin and Auckland.

Second, cities and their leaders can inform and shape citizen decision making – for example on consumption, waste, retail or mobility choices. They can promote behaviours that accelerate the clean energy transition and foster positive market responses. A major recent development in this respect has been the move towards active travel in many cities.

Third, cities can shape and regulate local business behaviours that facilitate and accelerate climate adaptation. This can be done via planning policy, procurement frameworks and on-the-ground environmental regulation. Devolution arrangements differ from nation to nation but in many places, cities have the regulatory and purchasing power to make a real difference.

Fourth, cities are nexuses of infrastructure, logistics, mobility and utilities. They can facilitate the integration and interoperability of these otherwise separate systems to optimise multipliers and dependencies between sectors. This can happen through the sharing of physical locations, such as underground pipes and tunnels, or digital platforms that encourage ‘system-of-systems’ approaches. Public and private sector, mobility and energy, real estate and waste, place and logistics are all examples of seemingly discrete worlds that can be connected through diligent city leadership.

Fifth is placemaking. Cities can lead the reconfiguration of places to support low carbon modes. This can include the creation of public space for exercise and shaded or greened space for climate comfort, and the introduction of active transport-friendly routes and supportive facilities. Tactical urbanism that prioritises shared spaces will generate real social capital, while land can be designated for low-carbon buildings or urban food production. Nature-based solutions to heightened climate risks can be prioritised ahead of hard engineered and carbon intensive “grey” infrastructure.

Sixth, cities can also work to assemble investment opportunities, make them visible, and de-risk them where possible. This can include land and site assembly, creation of scaled-up portfolios of assets, and structuring of Public-Private Partnerships. Aggregation – partnership working between neighbouring or allied cities – can lead to new, unanticipated opportunities.

Lastly, net zero strategies must not be solely about decarbonisation. They should also create jobs, improve public health outcomes and promote innovation. Cities can work to secure the extra benefits of decarbonisation: green jobs, new skills, air quality improvements, improved citizen wellbeing, civic innovation, waste reductions and reinvestment in circular systems. These are the non-climate dividends of the low-carbon city that must be actively pursued if they are to accrue.

Net zero strategies must not be solely about decarbonisation. They should also create jobs, improve public health outcomes and promote innovation.

Of course, cities are also well positioned to address the transition risks associated with decarbonisation – job losses, tax revenue decline and facilities obsolescence among them. Climate-positive action can be economy-negative in the short term and needs active shaping. Cities can avoid impeding longer-term commitment to decarbonisation by fostering new sources of jobs and taxes as high emitting sectors transition.

As COP26 gets closer we will hear many debates about how to both accelerate the transition to net zero and ensure that it is just in its consequences. I see the role of cities and place-based strategies as essential to both.