Urban frontrunners — cities and the fight against global warming

Article Published 12 Jun 2009 Last modified 11 May 2021
3 min read
Photo: © elsamu
Barcelona is becoming a leader in solar energy use, Malmö is developing a carbon neutral residential area and London is setting ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets. Cities are joining in the fight against climate change.

Europe cannot expect to achieve its major climate change objectives without contributions from the major European urban centres towards achieving these goals.

Ronan Dantec, Vice Mayor of Nantes, 2008

As concentrations of human activity, Europe's cities and towns account for 69 % of the continent's energy use and thus most greenhouse gas emissions. Seen another way, however, the characteristics of urban settings offer important opportunities for sustainable living. Already, population density in cities means shorter journeys to work and services, greater use of public transport, and smaller dwellings requiring less lighting and heating. As a result, urban dwellers consume less energy per capita than rural residents. In some cities, policy-makers are now going further, implementing a variety of measures to combat greenhouse gas emissions.

The key lies in planning cities in ways that facilitate lower per capita energy consumption, using means such as sustainable urban transport and low energy housing. New technologies for energy efficiency and renewable resources, such as solar or wind energy and alternative fuels, are also important, as is providing opportunities for individuals and organisations to change their behaviour.

Pioneers of change

A couple of frontrunner cities are already beginning to act as pioneers of change and provide excellent examples of best practice.

  • In Spain, Barcelona's 2002–2010 Plan for Energy Improvement is increasing the use of renewable energy (especially solar energy), reducing use of non-renewable energy sources and lowering the GHG emissions from energy consumption. The plan comprises promotion policies, demonstration projects, legal and management instruments, and the integration of energy measures into the urban development. Its Solar Thermal Ordinance has been a model for more than 50 Spanish municipalities and was a major input to the new Spanish building code. Since its enforcement until the end of 2006 a total of 40 095 m2 of solar panels have been installed with annual savings of 32 076 Megawatt hours annually — enough  energy to provide hot water for 58 000 inhabitants per year.
  • Västra Hamnen is a new carbon neutral residential area in Malmö (Sweden). Its 1 000 homes get their energy supply from renewable sources; solar energy, wind power and water, the latter through a heat pump that extracts heat from seawater and an aquifer. The 100 % renewable energy equation is based on an annual cycle, meaning that at certain times of year the city district borrows from the city systems and at other times the Västra Hamnen area supplies the energy systems with its surplus. An important part of the concept is low energy use in the buildings. Urban density and sustainable transport complement the activities to contribute to the mitigation of climate change. Seven years after its inauguration, the area still attracts thousands of international visitors.

Low carbon options for cities include planning efficient city structures, controlling urban sprawl, developing efficient public transport, and increasing the production and use of renewable energy. It is also essential that local and regional governments adopt more ambitious local and regional targets to bring down CO2 levels.

Some cities, for example Rotterdam, the Hague, London and Newcastle, have commited to become carbon neutral. City administrations working with sectoral partner organisations are promoting reduced energy use, renewable zero emission energy and energy efficiency to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.

Cities can make a global difference

The London Climate Change Action Plan shows how local integrated action can also make a difference in Europe and globally. London produces 8 % of the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom, which in turn is the world's eighth largest emitter. London's target is to stabilise CO2 emissions in 2025 at 60 % below 1990 levels. The plan comprises many concrete measures and targets in its different actions and programmes addressing themes such as green homes, businesses, energy efficiency and transport.

A single city alone cannot tackle the challenge of climate change. But by working together, cities are developing joint actions. With its ambitious approach, London has inspired others and has taken a political lead on climate change among large cities, for example, in the C40 Large Cities climate leadership group.

The Covenant of the Mayors Initiative is the European Commission's most ambitious initiative to date involving cities and citizens in the fight against global warming. Participating local and regional authorities will formally commit to reduce their CO2 emission by more than 20 % by 2020. To do that, they will develop and implement Sustainable Energy Action Plans and communicate on the measures and actions of local stakeholders.



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