There is no time to wait, and cities must show that they can tackle the worsening impacts of climate change, argue the mayors of Glasgow, Susan Aitken, and Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, convened by the Resilient Cities Network to write this opinion piece.
The presidency of the upcoming COP 28 promises to deliver a faster pace of energy transformation by 2030. As we have seen in recent years, the Gordian knot lies with some governments not taking the decisive action the moment demands. Yet, despite the challenges, cities have the power to make a difference. Here are two cases in point.
Glasgow and Rio de Janeiro are no strangers to the forces of nature. This year, after the hottest winter on record in Rio, spring began at an alarming 104F (40C). Almost simultaneously, Glasgow experienced some of its heaviest rainfall in years, flooding much of the city. Clearly, this is not unusual. Most of the world is already enduring some form of extreme climate impact, which is prompting cities to take the lead.
Cities and electricity are inextricably linked. Today, cities consume nearly 80% of the world’s electricity, a percentage that will only increase as climate change pushes more people into urban centers. Our cities are also responsible for more than 70% of global emissions, much of it associated with energy-intensive urban services such as transportation, heating and cooling, and construction.
Electricity is typically managed and distributed nationally, with the utility retaining both physical and symbolic power. Transitioning to renewable energy sources would not only help us become independent of geopolitical tensions arising from fossil fuel reliance but could also shift decision-making power regarding our energy systems to cities.
In Glasgow, we have been working to deliver equitable, net zero carbon and climate-resilient living by 2030. In 2021, it was calculated that 29% of our greenhouse gas emissions came from the residential sector and 28% from transport. We have acted accordingly.
Our largest project to date is a metropolitan-wide housing retrofit program. Through this ten-billion-pound initiative, we will prioritize the improvement of 430,000 homes of the least energy-efficient homes – about half of the total housing stock in the region. This will include the installation of solar panels, double and triple glazing, and heat pumps among other measures. All of this is within the remit of any city authority.
A key element of our strategy is inclusion. At the end of the 20th century, as we became a post-industrial society, shipyards, factories and mines closed down for good, leaving tens of thousands of workers with no options or future. Glasgow is determined not to let this happen again. That is why our Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan is essential to prepare our workforce for new opportunities as we move away from fossil fuels. It is expected to support 75,000 jobs while reducing emissions and tackling fuel poverty.
Rio de Janeiro
Nestled between forested mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, Rio de Janeiro shares the same goals as Glasgow to become more equitable and climate resilient. Our city also aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 through initiatives that include various renewable energy projects and energy efficiency programs.
Brazil’s energy system governance is structured at the federal level and renewable energy already accounts for nearly 50% of its energy matrix, well above the global average. While the country is on the right track, our local government is committed to catalyzing low-carbon urban development. Between 2015 and 2022, Rio’s solar photovoltaic (PV) distributed generation capacity grew by almost 14,000%.
One of our flagship programs, Solário Carioca, promotes solar PV generation to reduce municipal electricity costs, which in 2021 were almost US$45 million (0.8% of municipal spending). This will allow a quarter of all municipal buildings to be powered by renewable energy by 2030. Equally, its implementation in the traffic light system, which consumes a significant amount of electricity, could lead to annual savings of 22% on the public system’s electricity bill.
Both our cities, like others on a similar path, have been able to move forward in large part because we had access to the knowledge, data, tools and partnerships to identify, assess and develop projects to reduce carbon emissions. We are in this together and all cities have the right and the need to embark on this journey. None should be left behind. But it costs money.
This is where another of the presidency’s commitments at the upcoming COP 28 takes center stage: setting the framework for a new agreement on much-needed project finance. The Resilient Cities Network, a city-led network with 100 member cities in 47 countries, surveyed its member cities and found that 80% identified financing as a barrier to scaling up renewable solutions.
While investment in the energy transition has been steadily increasing, even greater acceleration is needed. Recent estimates suggest that annual investment will have to triple to USD 4 trillion by 2030 to achieve net zero global emissions by 2050. So, we need to make the case for more investment in an equitable energy transition. We cannot do it alone.
We need a 60% emissions reduction by 2035, and that requires a much faster energy transition. National governments may have complex reasons for delaying decisions, but the daily experience of a troubled planet tells us that we cannot wait. Cities can take the lead. Glasgow and Rio are.