Building carbon-free cities

Decarbonisation is high on everyone’s agenda, with concerns around the climate emergency and air pollution only increasing. But just how do we reach the ambitious target of being net-zero by 2050?

Part of the answer is we need to make carbon-free cities a reality. Currently city dwellers are responsible for three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions and by 2050, around 70% of the global population will live in cities threatening to further increase city emissions. But by using existing technologies, cities could see a 90% reduction in their carbon emissions by 2050.

We discussed the topic of zero-carbon cities with a panel of experts at our recent Innovation Days event in Essen, Germany, who were all in agreement that carbon-free cities are an achievable future reality but it’s just a question of how we build them.

“You have to listen to the science and you have to act”

Claes Thunblad, Former Mayor at Järfälla Municipality, Sweden

Retrofitting buildings to ensure they’re more energy efficient, using different materials for buildings, vehicles and roads and improving public transportation systems can dramatically reduce a city’s carbon emissions. Further steps include the decarbonisation of heat through district heating networks. Our Citigen power station provides a lower carbon and cost-efficient source of energy to the highly populated City of London and saves around 5,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.

And renewable energy has a significant role to play. Renewable energy produces no direct greenhouse gas emissions, enabling cities to power their day-to-day activities without impacting the environment or levels of local air pollution. 

“In sustainable cities, life must be easier and the cost lower”

Dr. Dirk Müller, Head of the Institute for Energy Efficient Buildings and Indoor Climate at Aachen University, Germany

As cities move towards increasing decarbonisation, the new systems must be designed with the needs and wants of their residents in mind. For carbon-free cities to work effectively life needs to be more convenient for residents – they must be at the heart of the new system. Many residents will need to adapt the way they live their life and reduce their personal carbon footprint to deliver carbon-free cities.

To support residents, cities need to create new systems that are adaptable, respond effectively to different demands and deliver flexible solutions. 

“It can be done but is going to require a significant shift in attitudes”

Paul Voss, Managing Director at Euroheat & Power

Most cities currently focus on their day-to-day running, ensuring that they deliver essential services for residents. Instead cities will need to focus on the long-term as residents begin to judge cities and authorities on their sustainability credentials. Cities need to begin to consider energy as a strategic asset and how it can support them to achieve their long-term goals.

We can work with cities to install electric vehicle charging points throughout a city, supporting residents to go electric through easy access to public charge points, particularly for those who don’t have off-street parking. We can provide the technology for cities to generate their own energy through solar panels and utilising battery storage. Cities can create a flexible and reliable renewable energy supply for their residents – storing excess energy for when it is needed and reducing reliance on the grid.  

“Cities are a catalyst for talent. Cities have the best brains from around the world”

Andrea Ruckstuhl, Director (EMEA) at Lend Lease

Cities and business have the skills and resources needed to adopt and drive the process forward. Cities are already beginning the transition to carbon-free - Bristol is committed to being carbon neutral by 2030 and Manchester by 2038. They can lead by example encouraging others to follow and provide the case for the UK’s decarbonisation. These cities will be proving the investment benefit of building carbon-free cities and that being sustainable can improve profitability.

The cities that go first will create a blueprint, one that is likely to be used by many more cities serious about reducing their carbon footprint and impact on the environment.

But they can’t do it on their own. Cities will not achieve their net-zero carbon emissions targets without support from national government. And the UK Government needs to increase funding to support the growth of carbon-free cities in order to hit its own net-zero target. We need regulation and legislation so that decarbonisation becomes standard, normal practice.