How do cities tackle climate change? Examples of initiatives

The City

One of the super stars of the 8th Sustainable Innovation was “The City”. Cities have been taking leadership in Climate Change. They are experimental labs for sustainability and resilience, striving to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to below 1.5°C. Cities are ecosystems that improve access to each other, to jobs, to opportunities, to ideas, to goods and so on. That’s the primary function why cities exist. Cities have been getting an enormous increase in reflexions most importantly on climate action, focusing on solutions.

Regarding transport emissions, they account for 23% of the global energy related emissions due to doubling by 2050. This is a big challenge itself, but the real issue is its dynamic growth. About 60% of all kilometres travelled around the world take place in cities; so, urban travel is an area that we can really do something about.

From London to Kuwait to Hong-Kong

According to Dr. Philippe Rode, Executive Director at LSE Cities in London, an interesting insight is that cities with a similar population and certainly similar ways of life and wealth, can have very different carbon emissions. Back from Kuwait where he launched a new report, Dr. Philippe Rode said that Kuwait is an extreme outlier, it’s the most resource intense country in the world; almost 400 gigajoules per person is being spent per year to make that society work and 30% of that energy used is related to transport. By contrast, eco-rich Hong-Kong only consumes probably a fourth or a fifth of resources of energy.

Another insight awakened by Dr. Philippe Rode was the example of London: between 2005 and 2015, London has reduced its transport related emissions per capita by 30%, over ten years. This happened over a period when economic growth was strong.

We need to have an integrated shift towards a new urban mobility. It needs to be a package of much larger actions. We can observe that urban transport carbon efficiency over the last 20 years is mostly the result of reduced travel intensities in cities, shifts towards public transport, walking and cycling rather than a shift in privately owned vehicle becoming more carbon efficient. By the way, Dr. Philippe Rode thinks that cities’ policies are not aggressive enough: “I’m not aware of the single city over the last 20 years that had a very progressive, not to say a very aggressive carbon emission reduction strategy that did not benefit in terms of its economy, its benefits in terms of well-being, and over improvement of quality of life”.

British Columbia

Hon-George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, British Columbia Government stated that in British Columbia, 40% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the transportation sector. The province of British Columbia has a 2020 target that the Minister acknowledged, frankly, they are not going to meet. So, another target will be set including a single target for the transportation sector of 30% below 2015 levels by 2030. The province went over Clean Energy Vehicle programs: they need to implement policy instruments to increase adoption rates of electric vehicles. They need, for instance, to enhance the electric vehicles charging networks throughout British Columbia particularly in the least populated areas but certainly in the populated areas. British Columbia is also investing heavily in public transit; the national Government plans to invest almost 2 billion US$ over the next 2 years; the province will intend to pay 40% of the carbon of the cars that make a rapid transit through the infrastructure in Metro Vancouver that support the cities, the mayors who have set this as a priority; it’s a priority to get people around, and it’s a priority for the economy of the Province, congestion costing over billion dollars.


Johansen Raymond, Oslo Governing Mayor, comments on the dramatic climate changes that the world has been facing: “we need to matter of urgency”. Pollution issues in cities like Beijing, Tokyo, New-York, London, Paris and even Oslo have a direct impact on in Artic and Antarctica. More and more people in cities all over the world suffer from bad air quality. More than hundred thousand inhabitants experience health problems and death with high air pollution. In Oslo, for instance, geography and cold winters are a bad combination. The air moves and the pollution is trapped in the city. To improve air quality, the speed limit of cars has been reduced and road cleaning has been increased in the winter. Oslo local Government is continuously working on improving the public transport system and significant infrastructure investment will be made in the coming years. In addition, cycling is being endorsed as a realistic alternative in the winter; not only does the city have more bicycle lanes, but bicycle lanes are cleaned after a snow fall. Another measure is promoting zero emissions transport. Oslo has become the electrical vehicle capital of the world. These days 47% of all vehicles sold in the city are battery electric or plug-in hybrids. “While solutions are local, air quality is a global issue. We need to collaborate on everything from local action plans to challenging the transport industry to reduce emissions”, said Johansen Raymond who was proud to announce that Oslo joined the BreatheLife Campaign (initiated by the World Health Organization, UN Environment and Climate & Clean Air Coalition); “Through this, as cities, we can make the connection: air quality and health, even better. We can put together towards our common goals air that our citizens can breathe”, he added.


The city of Cologne, through the “Koln Mobil 2025”, are on the way to reduce the GHG emissions by 20% from 1995 to 2020, “but not only from the activities in the city but from the change of the behaviours from the people”, said Andreas Walter, Vice-Mayor of Cologne. The problem of the city of Cologne is its limited infrastructure opportunities. Cologne is a 2000 year old city and the whole infrastructure is very limited. The city of Cologne wants, now, to go beyond a conservative planning being practiced until recently. The aim, now, is to create “a win-win situation for the economy, for the people, for the climate”. So, they are working on opportunities for foot walkers, bikers, the trams and public transports. Andreas Walter stated that in the next 10 years all buses in Cologne will be electro mobile 100% renewable. In addition, in most of the streets in the city, there will be a priority for bikers. So, cars are allowed but the bikers are in the middle of the roads. Another issue is that 30% of the traffic within the city is a searching for parking place. To deal with that, a waterbus system will be built between Bonn, Cologne and Dusseldorf (based on the model of Rotterdam).


In Melbourne, to manage droughts and floods, the green roofs help to reduce flood risk and “it’s amazing actually the amount of water we can stop flooding our streets” told Cathy Oke, Councillor, Chair Environment Portfolio, Melbourne. She also thinks that they need to give information to their residents and visitors on which streets that are greener or cooler and where to refuge in the really hot summers and heat waves. It’s all about getting a lot of data into online platforms and, thus, cities allow citizens but also the people who are used to handle data to create amazing solutions. So, when you look at technology itself in cities, there is a possibility that civil engineers, architects and civil planners can use the technology to improve mobility, buildings and so on… simulations to optimize networks and infrastructures.

A focus on California

In turn, David Hoschild, California Energy Commissioner, was pledging America. Whilst the Trump Administration decided to drop off the Paris Agreement, “we are suffering the worst forest fires in the history in my state in California and we’ve seen some of the worst storms in the South-East of the United-States” David Hoschild started with, “but the good news is that there is a strong and growing coalition of Governments around the country who are pushing even harder now for a clean energy future. California is really proud to be part of this community”. What’s actually happening in the United States, the last two years a raw, the majority of new electric generation being added to the grade of year is renewable, 55% and second largest resource of new generation capacity added in the United States, is in the solar. According to the Commissioner, the United States is at the very beginning of the end of the coal era. The market capital for the top 4 coal producers in the US: Peabody, Arch, Murray, Cloud Peak Energy, fell by 99% over the last 5 years. That is the deepest decline in value in the history of the world energy industry. The first law that Jerry Brown signed when he came into office in 2011, 33% by 2020 and then 2 years ago, signed this law that 50% of all electricity has to come from renewable resources by 2030. So, today, more renewable energy has been installed in California than any other states in the United States. Texas is second because of wind. “Our GDP in the city of California is growing faster than the national average. We’ve cut unemployment in half over the last 5 years in California and there has been no state wire blackout since we started on the clean energy path”, stated David Hoschild. In 2013, the state of California had only 12% of the electricity which was coming from renewable resources. Today, 40% are renewables (Hydro facilities included). This is, by the way, in concurrent with rapid economic growth.
California is where you have the world’s largest solar thermal power plants. This is not new, indeed, it’s a 30 years old system, still going strong and David Hoschild thinks it’s a real testimony of durability of renewables.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, Mojave Desert, California

California is also the home of the largest geothermal power plant in the Lake County, North of San Francisco, the largest wind project in South of state and it is also the world’s largest batteries project.

The Geysers, North San Francisco                                          

Wind turbines, California

The lithium-ion battery at Escondido, north of San Diego, can power the equivalent of 20,000 homes.  Read more about California’s big battery experiment here.

As for off-shore winds, the United States is very far behind Europe; they just started their first off-shore project off Rhode Island, last year. There is a huge opportunity and even within the coastal states in the United States and in California where most of towns actually are on the coast: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose; off-shore wind has a real benefit there.

Block Island Wind Farm

Also, today, the largest manufacturing facility in the state of California is electric cars factory: Tesla which now employs 33 000 people. 341 000 electrical vehicles are on the road today.

With respect to new constructions, by 2020, a new code is going to make it solar for all new constructions built with hundred thousand new homes in California a year. One benefit, by the way, of all of these policies are the job opportunities. In California, today, over hundred thousand people work in the solar industry.

In the long term, the ultimate destination California wants to arrive at, is to electrify almost everything. The goal thereafter is the greening of the electric grid to hundred percent of renewable energy. The state also counts 14 000 electric vehicle charging stations are necessary so that electric vehicles go mainstream. There’s a trend in California to build all-electric homes, there are no gas appliances and everything is run of electricity. The other thing that the state is pushing very hard on is the high-speed rail. California is the only state in the country that is actively building a high-speed rail. The United States is well behind Europe.The commitment is an investment of 3 billion dollars to build this network and every single station will be like it has never been in California, a zero-energy building, all electricity to come to power the electric needs of the actual network will be led by 100% of renewable energy.

Illustration of the high-speed rail in California

California is certainly a world leader maybe alongside with Germany and Sweden. A very interesting question asked from the audience was about what must be done now, is calculating the carbon footprint of implementing everything? For example, switching to a billion electric cars will be 10 giga tons of emissions and implementing all these systems worldwide is a problem to address because we will have to add hundreds of giga tons of carbon to the atmosphere to create the solar panels, the electric vehicles, the batteries and the wind mills that are made of steel, etc… So, the road to a non-combusting future is waved with huge emission. The question is how to address the need to remove those production emissions so that we don’t actually kill the planet that we build, that we don’t kill the planet in the process of creating all these new infrastructures? To that completely fair interrogation, David Hoschild answered that efficiency must be the first priority. “Yes, there is some carbon to expand to make this transition but the correct way to look at this is through lifecycle energy savings” he replied.

Also, David Hoschild seems to be confident about the fact that “There’s no way that Donald Trump can put the genie back on the bottle”; I’m not so sure he is right mainly concerning “the end of coal era”, while according to the Wall Street Journal, coal is showing signs of economic upturn in West Virginia and in the main producer states; knowing that mining concessions have been reopened and that coal is becoming even more competitive than natural gas. It’s even more foolish when you know that the rise in American coal exports is towards countries that advocate for the planet conservation, especially carried out by the European States – read more here .

Not tomorrow, but today

So, resilience has all its sense in there. Yes! Cities have a substantial role to play to speed up the path towards the energy transition by having even more aggressive and demanding policies to meet the Paris Agreement goals as an emergency issue; not tomorrow, but today. While being ever mindful of the importance of data processing enhancing co-creation and guiding stakeholders to work sustainability targets and overcoming some of the challenges in a “smart” environment – The smart city.

Cities need to go beyond silos between stakeholders and Governments (Local, Regional and National). They need to act local for a global action, by joining some international cooperation like the BreatheLife Campaign or the C40Cities or again the 100 Resilient Cities.

I take my hat off to these cities that are on the forefront of tackling global climate change. Whatever profile they have, whatever their history,  whoever their people, whatever their resources, whatever their urban shape, all cities can build environmentally, socially and economically sustainable interacting ecosystems alongside with very rapid growing technological developments. That’s the clear thing that stood out during the 8th Sustainable Innovation Forum this year.

Written by,

Cathy Masson 

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