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Cities Have an Unprecedented Opportunity to Shift to Renewables

A solar panel is being installed during Climate Week NYC 2016. Photo: markmacinnis / Instagram
A solar panel is being installed during Climate Week NYC 2016. Photo: markmacinnis / Instagram

With the Paris Agreement about to be implemented, the world’s cities have a historic opportunity to transform and decarbonise their energy use.

In a new report, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates energy use in 3,649 cities around the world, and gives an indication of their potential to scale-up renewable energy by 2030.

Cities must play a key role in the transition to a low-carbon economy according to the agency, if only because they account for 65 per cent of global energy use and 70 per cent of man-made carbon emissions.

“By 2050, urban populations are expected to double, making urbanisation one of this century’s most transformative trends,” said Adnan Amin, IRENA’s director-general, “Now is the time to grow with renewables, leapfrog dirty technology, and create cities of the future that people are proud to call home.”

The report highlights that as energy use across cities and countries grows and declines, there is a massive potential to cost-effectively boost renewable energy use in buildings, across transport networks and throughout regional energy grids.

The average New Delhi citizen, for example, currently uses only a quarter of the energy used by a citizen of Tokyo, the report says. But energy use in India’s capital is estimated to grow by 45 per cent by 2030 due to economic growth, while energy use in Tokyo is expected to decline due to increased efficiency.

A Transformative Role

Last month, a report already revealed that governments around the world are expected to spend $90 trillion on sustainable infrastructure over the next 15 years, two-thirds of which in cities.

“Cities can play a transformative role in leading the world to a clean and sustainable energy future,” said Adnan Amin, IRENA’s director-general. Existing infrastructure – spanning sectors such as energy, public transport, buildings, water supply and sanitation – is estimated to be responsible for 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have to rethink the entire urban energy landscape, which requires rigorous planning and holistic decision-making. Renewable energy, combined with energy efficiency, will power the future growth of cities. We must ensure this transition happens as soon as possible,” Amin said.

Energy in Buildings

Electricity use varies widely across cities depending on climate conditions, population density and development stage, according to the report. And energy use for transport varies greatly depending on urbanisation models. Today, renewables supply only 20 per cent of this energy globally, but much more is possible according to IRENA.

The report outlines three priority areas – both in terms of technology and in policy development – where cities can take action to scale up renewables use. Renewable energy in buildings is a major priority and should power heating, cooling, cooking and appliances, according to the report.

In Europe, cities already collaborate in networks such as the Building Technologies Accelerator run by Climate-KIC, the EU’s climate innovation initiative, to experiment with new low carbon technologies in buildings and get them to market faster.

Sustainable options for transport such electric mobility and biofuels are also a priority according to IRENA, as are completely integrated urban energy systems.

The full report is available on the IRENA website.

Interested in city-centric climate innovation? Find out more about Climate-KIC’s Building Technologies Accelerator and Low Carbon Cities Lab.

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