By Mark Watts, Executive Director, C40 Cities
Today 15 of the world’s most influential mayors — all members of the C40 Cities network — are setting out how they will power a green and just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. By setting ambitious targets for accelerating the full decarbonisation of electricity, heating, cooling and cooking in their cities, and scaling up public investment and regulation for renewable energy, these mayors are not waiting for their national governments to kick-start the clean energy revolution we so urgently need — they are getting on and taking leadership themselves. In many jurisdictions city governments might not seem like the obvious candidates to transform energy supply, but these entrepreneurial mayors are demonstrating mission-driven leadership, focusing on the goal (in this case a science-based target driven by the urgency of the climate crisis) and then pulling every lever at their disposal to achieve it, rather than being constrained by the limitations of formal responsibilities.
Energy is the biggest source of global greenhouse gas emissions — and cities use over two-thirds of it. But the continued burning of fossil fuels for energy is not only behind the dangerous overheating of the planet, it is also taking an enormous toll on public health. Each year, 8.7 million deaths are a result of breathing in air polluted by burning fossil fuels — more than global deaths from smoking. Meanwhile, over 800 million people worldwide lack access to electricity at all. We urgently need a new, clean energy system that promotes public health, resilience, and equity. Cities can — and must — play a role in driving that shift.
Cities are key to building a more resilient energy system
As climate breakdown brings further heatwaves, flooding and storms, we can expect cities to experience an increasing number of blackouts. A power outage coinciding with extreme weather could be dangerous. Local, decentralised electricity means greater energy security than reliance on national or state grids — which is what makes cities, who have power over local decisions and are the governments closest to citizens — so key to building the decentralised, more resilient energy system of the future.
Cape Town is a city that suffers from frequent power outages, but its Small-Scale Energy Generation programme improves energy security by promoting rooftop solar and small wind turbines for businesses and residents. Energy consumers become ‘prosumers’ selling excess electricity to the grid. As well as improving resilience, the programme creates local jobs and cuts emissions by shifting away from coal-based generation.
The public health benefits are huge
Reducing the concentration of particulate matter air pollution to meet WHO guidelines could raise average global life expectancy by roughly two years. In the most polluted places, such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal, it could add up to more than five. Given that it is particulates emitted from fossil fuel combustion that are particularly dangerous, the public health case for rapid transition away from the burning of fossil fuels for energy is significant. For many cities, the public health benefits are a major driver behind upgrading their energy infrastructure. Seoul’s plan to install an ambitious 1GW of solar energy capacity by 2022 is expected to reduce emissions of PM2.5 by 135 tonnes per year — equivalent to the emissions of 220,000 diesel cars.
It creates jobs
Research has found that jobs in renewables and energy efficiency create nearly 3 times as many jobs per $1 million invested compared to investment in the old, polluting economy. For cities hit by the pandemic, investment in clean energy represents an important opportunity to create good, green jobs. San Francisco’s community choice scheme, Clean Power SF, created nearly 3,500 local jobs in construction and programme operation in its first two years, while Melbourne’s power purchase agreement with a local wind farm creates jobs for local people while making a significant impact on decarbonising the local grid.
Local action can improve equity and access to energy
In places where many people don’t have grid connection, through investing in decentralised renewable energy, city governments can dramatically improve people’s lives by providing access to affordable, clean power. Johannesburg’s electrification programme for its approximately 180 informal settlements is an example of a city working to provide universal energy access with innovative, decentralised strategies, like solar water heaters, solar lighting and renewables-powered mini grids.
The energy transition is vital for cutting emissions
We cannot limit global heating to 1.5°C without a massive expansion of renewable power generation. In particular, we must rapidly phase out coal power across the globe. Cities — as centres of innovation as well as major energy consumers of energy — are well-placed to drive the transition.
City actions on energy are as diverse and as innovative as the cities themselves: Mexico City has installed solar heaters to provide hot water in hospitals, while London’s Local Energy Accelerator provides technical assistance to projects such as district energy networks that use waste heat from the London Underground. Tokyo reduces its emissions from energy use in buildings with a cap and trade programme, while Los Angeles has developed the largest solar and battery energy storage system in the United States.
The 15 C40 cities pledging to power a green and just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic today are the pioneers. But I hope and encourage thousands more cities around the world to join them, setting science-based targets for renewable energy and accelerating the full decarbonisation of electricity, heating, cooling and cooking.