Accelerating climate action: Learning from sustainable city leaders

Sue Tabbitt

Accelerating climate action: learning from sustainable city leaders

by Sue Tabbitt | Smart Cities World | 17 February 2021

The Nordic region and San Francisco and Boulder in the United States are leading the way when it comes to climate-friendly policymaking.​

Following the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, over 450 cities around the world have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 under the Climate Ambition Alliance. The sense of urgency is mounting, as the effects of climate change are felt by citizens around the world in the form of catastrophic weather events, extreme swings in temperature, the loss of ice mass, and coastal erosion.

Some cities are making fantastic headway towards their targets, especially in the Nordic countries. Others have started from a point of greater disadvantage, such as a heavier carbon legacy, but have strong, stated intentions and have mobilised whole ecosystems to accelerate innovation and inspire changes in behaviour at an individual level. Here’s what their experiences can teach others.

In Finland, Turku has set a target to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2029. Measuring against a baseline performance in 1990, it has to date achieved 60 per cent of that target. The city is doing lots of things right, and many of these are to do with its organisation, focus and lateral thinking. For instance, Turku has created the permanent position of ‘Climate Director’, which the title-holder - Risto Veivo - believes is significant in focusing its efforts. He sits within the city’s Central Administration, Climate and Environment Policy Unit.

The city also holds itself publicly accountable, charting its carbon reduction progress on dedicated web pages. “It’s important to report performance…so cities can benchmark what they are doing and learn from each other,” Veivo says.

Turku’s climate work dates back to an initial plan as well as ‘binding’ greenhouse gas reduction and energy targets adopted by the City Council back in 2009 and updated more recently in 2018. In short, the city has over a decade of experience under its belt. So what has the city learnt in the process and what, specifically, is Veivo most proud of, away from the statistics?

One clear success factor has been the city’s readiness to exchange ideas with other climate champions and city leaders around the world. “We’re part of many different networks,” Veivo says. “We also work closely with our universities, have close ties with our counterparts in Stockholm as well as a range of other European cities we look to for inspiration. Further afield, we’ve cooperated with Japanese cities such as Nagano and Yokohama and US cities like Pittsburgh.”

Turku is also innovating with new energy systems. “Success is not just about replacing fossil energy with renewable energy, but also continuously developing new solutions,” Veivo notes, pointing to Turku’s re-use of surplus heat from a local water treatment plant to provide heating for the city. It has also participated in projects involving geothermal heating, through its academic links.

A significant side benefit of some of these more innovative initiatives is that they are creating employment for local citizens. “These newer energy solutions have brought hundreds of new permanent jobs to our region – whereas if we had prioritised investment in fossil energy 10 years ago, we would have had no net gain of new jobs here,” Veivo says. “So building a circular economy is part of the picture.”

Transforming transport

In Norway, the municipality of Bærum – not far from the capital Oslo – is making great strides too. It may have the advantage of being small, with a population of 127,000, but it is growing quite substantially as people look to settle away from the capital, according to Unni Larsen, managing director of SmartCity Bærum, a partnership between the municipality and the its private sector.

Bærum’s climate-related ambitions encompass the Fornebu area, which housed the former Oslo airport and is now a hub for regional and national business development set to host several thousand jobs and new homes. The target is for Fornebu to be a zero-emission area by 2027.

The municipality’s focus for reducing emissions is via transformation of local transport: more than 80 per cent of local emissions come from the transport sector. Electric vehicles accounted for 19 per cent of all cars by 2019, and Bærum has provided support for housing companies to deliver a charging infrastructure.

The municipality’s initial target was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030 compared to 2009, but following the Paris Agreement this goal will now be increased to 55-60 per cent within the same timeframe. As in Turku, goals include creating a more circular economy.

Other innovative plans including district heating and district cooling systems in Sandvika and Fornebu based on heat from the sewers and the Oslo Fjord. And by 2022, all outdoor lighting in the Bærum municipality will be connected to a new, digital system that can be custom-controlled.

Bærum proactively involves citizens, businesses and academia in its climate work. SmartCity Bærum itself is a close and strategic partnership between the municipality, business and academia. Other partnerships include The Research Center on Zero Emission Neighbourhoods in Smart Cities, and FutureBuilt - the Oslo regions’ showcase for the most ambitious players in the construction industry.

It is not a surprise that two of the pioneers in zero carbon strategies are from the Nordic region. Last year, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an international non-profit organisation, named 88 cities that are leading the way on climate action and transparency. In the report, it said of the top eight performers worldwide, which had each already achieved at least 50 per cent of their city-wide target for 100 per cent renewable energy, six were in the Nordics. In addition to Bærum and Turku, these were Stockholm in Sweden; Copenhagen, Gladsaxe and Elsinore (Helsingør) in Denmark.

Maia Kutner, associate director of cities, states and regions at CDP, puts the findings in context. “In Denmark, renewables account for 30 per cent of all energy used, with bioenergy, wind, solar and geothermal energy dominating the country’s energy mix,” she says. Across the region, Nordic electricity production is two-thirds comprised of renewable supply.

Leadership to deal with legacy issues

But what about those cities that have a bigger fossil fuel legacy to shift? Another of the CDP’s top eight climate performers is San Francisco, which has shown that hitting ambitious climate targets is possible so long as you are prepared to innovate and commit to the process.

Its mayor is a member of Climate Mayors, a bipartisan network of over 470 US civic leaders working to combat climate change through meaningful actions in their communities, CDP’s Kutner notes.

The Californian city’s target is to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Measured against a base year of 2012, the city is already 69 per cent of the way there. To meet its target, the city is working to supply greenhouse gas-free electricity to 100 per cent of all residential customers and 80 per cent of all commercial customers within the next nine years. Providers such as CleanPowerSF are offering customers fully renewable energy and others are providing grants for local solar electric projects to reduce installation costs.

But leadership and its advantageous location are important factors in the city’s progress. “Much of San Francisco’s success stems from its forward-thinking administration, the fact that it is located only a few miles from Silicon Valley where innovations in tech and data have been significant, and its collaborative attitude to work with local universities, notably [the University of California, San Francisco],” comments Alex Ryan, a manager in the Programs, Innovation and Impact team at Resilient Cities Network, which pools global knowledge, practice, partnerships and funding to promote urban resilience.

Strength in software

Technology innovation is helping cities manage its emissions more efficiently. In the small but fast-growing city of Umeå in Sweden, around 600 km north of Stockholm, it is the key to focusing new action to keep ahead of its acutely ambitious targets. Umeå was one of nine Swedish municipalities to sign an EU climate contract in December 2020, to accelerate development to reach climate-neutral cities by 2030.

The city is using a software as a service (SaaS) platform, developed by Swedish company ClimateView, as a climate planning tool. “It enables us to have an open local action plan - available as an easily accessible platform known as a ClimateBoard - which facilitates collaboration between the city and its stakeholders,” explains Erik Eklund, Umeå city’s energy and climate advisor.

As well as providing a standardised way of working, something many cities are still struggling with, he says the platform also increases the transparency of the climate mitigation work being conducted in the city, as it is open for all to see.

At a practical level, the SaaS system enables city climate teams to break down the big complex challenge of climate change into actionable, measurable goals and ultimately solutions. “For example, we can get a very good indication of how many electric cars will be needed by 2030 or 2040 in a growing city, as well as how many people we need to shift to public transport,” Eklund says. Since 2019, Umeå has converted 70 per cent of its public bus fleet to electric.

Using a standardised platform also helps Umeå measure its activities against other cities and collaborate more effectively. Today at least 10 other municipalities use ClimateView in Sweden; the city of Newcastle in the UK, Baden-Württemberg in Germany, Bern in Switzerland and La Palma in Spain are among its other users.

As well as devising practical solutions to transform transport, buildings and energy generation, Umeå recognises the need to influence citizen thinking and behaviour. Eklund says: “There have been a lot of information campaigns to encourage people to take responsibility for their individual impact on the climate and consider more efficient [public] modes of transport, but the pandemic has made this a lot harder,” Eklund notes.

This is in a university town where the average age of residents is 39 and there is already high engagement around climate action. But even here, individuals need to be nudged to make better choices. “We’ve even developed a mobile app to make bus travel easier,” Eklund says. “The key is in making the sustainable option the easy, and safe option.”

Helsingør in Denmark offers citizens subsidies to encourage the use of cleaner energy in private homes. It showcases examples of homeowners that have benefited from renewable energy via the local magazine and direct campaigns. The city offers an energy analysis with an 80 per cent discount so citizens can see how much they could save through the scheme.

Boulder, Colorado is the final city of CDP’s top eight and, like San Francisco, also boasts a ‘Climate Mayor’. It capitalises on its 300 days of sunshine per year to promote solar energy, offering rebates to those that have installed solar electric or solar thermal (hot water) systems on their property. Funds generated by the City of Boulder’s Solar Rebate Ordinance are used to provide these rebates.

Smarter grids

The increasing sophistication of smart grids is another boon to climate conscious cities - different sources of renewable energy can be managed and energy providers can have a much more active relationship with their customers.

In Germany, energy systems provider Viessmann is involved in SmartQuart, a project featuring a complete hydrogen micro-grid, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi). It is due to be built in the Kaisersesch region of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate by 2023.

The grid will include the production of renewable electricity for the operation of the electrolysers, the storage and distribution of the hydrogen, and the distribution of hydrogen for use in heat and power supply, industry and transportation.

SmartQuart is trialling three different non-fossil-fuel energy systems in three different towns or districts so they can be compared. The towns will be connected too, so that they can trade surplus energy with each other as and when required. As part of the grid, Viessmann will be testing its condensing boilers for operation with pure hydrogen and testing the practical operation of hydrogen-compatible fuel cell heating systems.

Another project, between Viessmann and German European grid operator Tennet, will see Viessmann bundling heat pumps and electricity storage units to form ‘virtual power plants’ so that customers will be able to save significantly on electricity costs.

There is always more that could be done, of course. CDP says other opportunities in reducing emissions are linked to increased efforts to decarbonise the electricity grid, optimise energy use in building, enabling next-generation mobility, and improving waste management.

The need to protect cities and citizens against the impact of environmental disasters is intensifying, too. Pointing to the stark Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) report on the risks of runaway climate change, CDP’s Kutner says: “We cannot slow down momentum on climate action. From droughts to hurricanes, we are already seeing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, and know that warming greater than 1.5°C will continue to bring more and far worse than what we are currently witnessing. We also know that 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, so cities must act urgently to protect citizens now, and in the future.”

They have plenty of successful examples to look to for inspiration.

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Photo: Representational image of San Francisco from Unsplash by Daiwei Lu (@daiwei). San Francisco's 'Climate Mayor' underpins its commitment to reducing emissions.