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Could the world's cities become carbon neutral?

More than two-thirds of carbon emissions come from towns and cities, according to the UN. To tackle climate change, cities must become more energy efficient. But could they ever become carbon neutral?

By the Inside Energy team on Dec 19, 2018

Dr Ajay Mathur
"One of the biggest barriers will be rapid urbanisation."

Dr Ajay Mathur

Director General of the Energy and Resources Institute and a member of the Indian Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change

The upsurge of people moving to towns and cities is placing huge demands on resources and infrastructure. This is particularly true for countries like India. But this trend also presents opportunities. Emerging economies like India that are still charting their growth trajectories have a chance to integrate sustainability and climate change agendas into their urban planning. To become carbon-neutral, cities need to consider efficient waste management and utilisation systems, focus on providing sustainable housing and access to safe drinking water. They also need technologies and developments in mobility.

Zenaida Monsada
"Yes, but it will be a huge undertaking."

Zenaida Ygnacio Monsada

Former Energy Secretary of the Philippines

Cities are major users of energy – especially in power and transport. Yet the task is not insurmountable. We just need governments, businesses and citizens to come up with innovative solutions. One encouraging example is New Clark City near Manilla. Twice the size of New York's Manhattan, it is currently under construction and will be the country's first example of a "green town". It will be made up of energy efficient buildings many of which will run on solar power and natural gas. The Philippines wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% between 2000 and 2030.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
"The signs are encouraging."

Sylvester Turner

Mayor of Houston, Texas, USA

Houston is the world's energy capital, but I believe we can also be the city that leads in renewable energy. In 2017 we used 1 billion kilowatt-hours of green power – that's 92% of our total consumption and it makes us the number one municipal user of clean energy in America. Since 2007 we’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 35%. I'm also seeing a mindset change. From 2015 to 2017, Houston faced three storms, culminating in Hurricane Harvey, the largest rain event in North American history. Since then there’s been a new realisation that we have to do things differently.

Keith Clarke
"Some can, but not all."

Keith Clarke

Chair of the Future Cities Catapult, a UK government-supported centre for the advancement of smart cities, and contributing author to Realistic Hope: Facing Global Challenges

Cities have been the centre of art, science and social thinking for generations. This 21st century quest to become carbon neutral will depend on how well financed they are, their leaders’ ability to sell their vision and the economic incentives and penalties implemented. Cities with strong administrations like London and New York can put carbon neutrality at the heart of their plans. Singapore has done some pioneering work in “smart cities”, where digital technology is used to ease urban living. But each city brings a different history and set of planning challenges.

Dawn Weiss
"Yes. Cities are already making great strides."

Dawn Weisz

CEO of Marin Clean Energy, an organisation that provides residents and businesses in California, USA, with the choice to purchase renewable energy

In California, we have cities that have already transitioned to using 90% carbon-neutral electricity to power homes and businesses and this is possible while keeping rates affordable.  In California we also have an abundance of electric vehicles and hybrids, as well as public transport increasingly powered by electric vehicles.  To accelerate our carbon-neutral objective we need to find technologies that can store solar and wind energy so that it is available to customers at any time.  We also need to improve the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. With the progress made to-date, the carbon-neutral objective is well within reach.

jeremy Bentham
"The transformation of cities is already happening."

Jeremy Bentham

Shell Scenarios Leader at Shell

Not long ago in the Netherlands, where I live, people stopped and stared when an electric car drove by. That time has now passed. Supportive government policies, lower electric vehicle prices and the creation of a dense network of charging points across the country mean that a once rare sight is now commonplace. On the other side of the world, Japan is reducing the carbon impact of its cities with its ambition of becoming a “hydrogen society”. It currently has only 2,200 hydrogen fuel-cell cars right now. It wants 40,000 by 2021. Urban development that is compact, integrated and collaborative can be the foundation for boosting economic development and diminishing environmental stresses.

Interviews by Soh Chin Ong, Thomas Francis, Andrew Wilson and Kunal Dutta

man stood on hill, plane shadow in field

This question is part of Shell's Sky Scenario "Could" content series, which asks some of the big questions around how the world can move to a low-carbon energy future.

Note: Views expressed in this article are those of the individuals featured and not the Shell group and its affiliates.

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