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Net Zero Cities
Credit: Robert Harding

Net Zero Cities

Call to action:

Rapidly transition all cities to become net zero by 2050 at the latest.

More than half of the world’s population live in cities. These urban areas account for over 70 percent of global energy use, with the highest emitting one hundred cities generating 18 percent of global carbon emissions. To help solve the climate crisis, cities must attain net-zero emissions rapidly. Net-zero cities balance the amount of greenhouse gases they emit with renewable energy and carbon-reduction practices. Net zero can be accomplished through a combination of strategies, including integrated sources of renewable energy; electrification of buildings and transport; increased efficiency; and a reduction in overall energy consumption. Cities must carry through with their net-zero pledges in an equitable way via initiatives that provide transparency, create equal access to information, empower vulnerable communities, foster innovation, and meet reputable net-zero standards.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn what net zero means for people who live in cities. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to prevent the most devastating climate change impacts, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025, drop 50 percent by 2030, and then reach net zero globally by 2050 to achieve climate goals. This requires steep reductions in emissions, in contrast to the current reality, in which emissions are increasing at record levels. While the IPCC targets remain out of reach, there is still hope of reducing emissions in many key areas, including in cities. Urbanization is increasing around the world, which means emissions reductions in cities can have a significant impact.

  • The key to a net-zero city is a plan in which genuine reductions in emissions are prioritized over strategies that allow emissions to continue under a business-as-usual model, such as dubious carbon offsets and unproven direct-air capture technologies. A net-zero plan must be followed by concrete actions that reduce emissions in a city’s buildings, transport, energy use, industries, and waste systems.
  • More than seven hundred cities in fifty-three countries have committed to reaching net zero by 2050 (see a list below in Key Players: Cities Committed to Net Zero).
  • Glasgow, Scotland, has committed to having net-zero emissions by 2045 through a plan that focuses on clean public transport, the provision of renewable energy, and the development of urban green spaces.

Adopt a net-zero lifestyle. Everyday behaviors of city residents contribute to net-zero action plans. These include:

Speak up about why cities must achieve net zero quickly. In order to create and execute an effective net-zero plan, local governments must consider city-specific features such as climate, resources, and cultural conditions. Citizen engagement is key to persuading cities to enter into net-zero pledges and then to making sure cities are holding true to these commitments. Here are ways to speak up about this pressing matter:

  • Write an op-ed on the importance of cities transitioning to net zero. Examples include this piece in the Futurebuild blog and this piece in the Reno Gazette Journal.
  • Contribute to a social media site where net-zero activism is center stage. For instance, the Zero Carbon Cities Action Planning Network (EU) is active on social media. The Net Zero Tracker, an organization that tracks progress on net-zero targets (including those set by cities), can also be followed on Twitter and Instagram.

Call on cities to make or follow through on net-zero pledges. There are a number of ways citizens can persuade cities to adopt net-zero pledges and then hold them accountable to the targets set.

  • Find out whether a particular city has already made a net-zero commitment. There are a number of organizations that publish net-zero pledges made by cities, including C40 Cities, the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, and Race to Zero.
  • Speak up at a city council meeting to advocate for a city to commit to net zero or follow through with its established pledge. Attending meetings for local planning commissions may also be useful since these bodies often prepare plans for the physical development of their jurisdiction.
  • Submit a public comment as part of a city’s net-zero pledge, such as decisions related to zoning and climate-action plans. Citizens can also comment on actions taken by state energy commissions as a means to accelerate the local transition to renewables.
  • Organize a petition campaign to persuade a city to develop a net-zero plan or execute an existing plan. Petitions can even be circulated online through sites such as Change.org, Petitions.com, Care2, and iPetitions.
  • Donate to or volunteer for campaigns that are advocating for net-zero causes at the city level (see Key Players: Organizations).

Groups

City Officials and Urban Planners

Learn from other cities that have entered into net-zero commitments. Cities often form their net-zero pledges via climate action plans and net zero roadmaps (see Key Players: Cities Committed to Net Zero). Here are resources for how net-zero pledges can be designed at the local government level:

  • The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free City Handbook lists twenty-two actions that cities around the world can take to move toward net zero.
  • The Centre for Cities released a report on how cities in the UK are leading the effort to help the country achieve its goal of net-zero emissions.
  • Cities on the Route to 2030 report details the progress that has been made over the past ten years for cities disclosing climate data in an effort to halve emissions by 2030.
  • C40 Cities is a network of city mayors collaborating to confront climate change.
  • The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance is a collaboration of leading global cities working together to be carbon neutral within the next two decades (see Key Players: Organizations).
  • The Anthesis Group has worked with New York City, Madrid, and other cities to develop net-zero and sustainability plans.
  • In its Beyond Carbon report, the engineering group Jacobs explores a holistic approach to decarbonizing cities.
  • The sustainable engineering firm Arup released an article that describes how cities can embrace nature to meet their net-zero goals.
  • There are also a number of consulting firms that can aid cities in formulating and realizing their net zero goals, such as Pollination, Quantis, and 3Degrees.

Focus on renewable energy solutions that will power cities. The shift to renewable energy is critical for achieving net-zero goals since clean electricity underpins emissions-reduction plans in a number of different sectors, including transportation and heating/cooling (see Solar Nexus and Wind Nexus). In order to run on 100 percent clean energy cities must:

  • Execute effective renewable energy road maps. Such road maps can start with specific commitments, such as by signing the C40 Renewable Energy Declaration.
  • Incentivize residents to power their homes and businesses with renewables. There are a number of financial incentives local governments can use to encourage its citizens to install clean energy, the most common of which is solar PV, solar thermal systems, and heat pumps (see Heat Pumps Nexus).
  • Power municipal property with renewables. Find ways to convert buildings and other public structures to renewable energy.
  • Enter into renewable-energy deals that accelerate local demand. Cities can enter into contracts, such as power-purchase agreements (PPAs), with renewable power generators. For instance, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, entered into a PPA with a local solar farm (see discussion of finance mechanisms below).

Commit to and execute cities’ net-zero goals via concrete actions. This study from Cornell University found that ambitious net-zero targets set by cities use quantitative metrics and target specific high-emitting sectors in their plans, which also helps prevent greenwashing claims. Here are some examples:

  • Helsinki, Finland, will decommission the Hanasaari B power plant by 2024 in an effort to transition the city to renewable energy sources. The retired plant may even be transformed into an arts and cultural center.
  • European cities are implementing bans on internal combustion vehicles.
  • Mexico City is launching a network of cable-car lines, particularly to serve the poorer outskirts of the city.
  • Milan is transforming many of its streets into bike-friendly paths, and under a new plan the city will create a web of cycling roads around the city.
  • Eighty-five percent of all trips made in Singapore’s planned Jurong Lake District will be made via walking, biking, or public transport.
  • Vancouver, British Columbia, is setting limits on emissions and energy use in new buildings in order to transition to zero-emissions buildings by 2030.

Execute innovative finance mechanisms to support net-zero commitments. Many of the actions needed to meet net-zero pledges are capital intensive, including the necessary $4–$5 trillion needed annually by 2030 to fund clean-energy investments around the world. This means that financial innovation is necessary, especially at the city level. Here are some ideas to aid on this front:

  • Use local financing mechanisms. Burlington, Vermont, introduced one of the first Net Zero Energy Revenue Bonds in the United States in order to provide its citizens an incentive to switch to clean electricity sources.
  • Establish funds dedicated to net-zero initiatives. The Sustainable Melbourne Fund, established by the Melbourne City Council in Australia, is a trust that offers environmental upgrade finance options and loans to businesses in support of energy-efficiency projects.
  • Participate in partnerships that can accelerate net-zero objectives. Belo Horizonte, Brazil, entered into a public-private partnership that unlocked funding to upgrade 178,000 city streetlights with LED bulbs.

Prioritize areas of city infrastructure that can best help cities achieve their net-zero goals. Transformation of the buildings and transportation sectors will have a significant impact on achieving net-zero goals. Here are some specific strategies urban planners can take:

  • Plan locations where electric vehicle charging stations can be located. C40 Cities offers a framework for deploying charging infrastructure.
  • Promote smart, digital infrastructure as a means to increase energy efficiency. Plan and design with digitation in mind, such as by linking buildings to a grid powered by renewables, and forming zones where data centers can be located.
  • Design city zones that optimize walkability and cycling. This study discusses walkable cities from the perspective of urban planning (see Fifteen-Minute City Nexus).
  • Transform city waste management toward a zero-waste system. Cities can do this through a variety of actions and incentives, including the separate collection of organics, encouragement of reuse, and prevention of food waste (see Wasting Nothing Nexus and Compost Nexus).
  • Advocate for urban-planning reforms that will reduce carbon emissions. Flexible zoning can both promote green spaces and ameliorate housing crises, and spatial planning promotes dense, walkable neighborhoods (see Fifteen-Minute City Nexus).

Scientists

Bring scientific scrutiny to bear on cities’ net-zero pledges. Scientists will be relied on throughout the worldwide transition to net zero. They must not only encourage this transition but critique it when the science behind a pledge does not add up.

  • Scientists must continue to bring to light false equivalency in carbon accounting, which is when emissions reductions and carbon removal are treated as analogs.

Companies

Partner with cities as a means to accelerate local net-zero commitments. Some cities control just 4 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that help from companies and local businesses will be key to developing net-zero cities. This paper details how net-zero goals can be met through public-private partnerships that allow the financial risk of climate projects to be shared. Here are additional resources and examples:

  • The City-Business Climate Alliance brings together city governments and private-sector actors through a platform that helps cities implement their climate-action plans and businesses meet their climate targets. Their pilot project led to the formation of the London Business Climate Leaders initiative.
  • GreenBiz provides tips on how companies and cities can partner to hit net-zero targets, including property assessed clean energy (PACE) programs that provide incentives for renewable energy improvements on private property.
  • Center for Climate and Energy Solutions provides examples of city-business partnerships, including one between St. Petersburg, Florida, and CycleHop to bring a bikeshare program to the area.
  • World Economic Forum explains how cities and businesses can partner to decarbonize real estate. The article proposes five steps: promote a collaborative business model, balance regulation and encouragement, share knowledge, tackle the retrofitting challenge, and scale up technology.
  • Partnerships can be between businesses. Envision Digital and ST Engineering have a memorandum of understanding to develop a net-zero carbon digital building suite to advance Singapore’s Green Plan 2030.
  • The University of Strathclyde, insurance group AIG, and engineering company Wood have started an initiative to help cities develop strategies to become net zero. The consortium will provide advice on low-carbon energy and infrastructure projects to cities.

Governance

Develop international standards for citywide net-zero commitments. Although many governments and companies are developing net-zero pledges, international standards are needed to make sure these pledges are credible. Specifically, standards can establish a definition of “net zero” and shape the milestones needed to show progress. The standards must be credible in order to prevent issues such as greenwashing and regulatory capture. Steps are currently being made to enact reputable standards:

Guarantee that a city’s net-zero plans protect and empower vulnerable communities. Vulnerable communities, including low-income populations and Indigenous peoples, are at risk of being disproportionately burdened and displaced during the transition to net zero. This risk can be eliminated by efforts such as:

  • Avoidance of net zero strategies that encumber vulnerable communities. For example, carbon offsets often target lands held by Indigenous peoples and traditional communities while cities and businesses using the offsets carry on under a business-as-usual model (see Offsets and Onsets Nexus). Instead, cities must focus on real emissions reductions.
  • Tailored economic incentives in net-zero plans that foster innovation and growth in vulnerable communities. The governor of North Carolina recently ordered his administration to develop strategies to diversify clean energy occupations and prepare youth from underrepresented communities for careers in a green economy.
  • Collaboration with vulnerable communities throughout all stages of the net-zero transition. Members of vulnerable communities are key stakeholders in this process (see next bullet).

Ensure citizen engagement is incorporated into the development and execution of net-zero plans. Net zero is an economy-wide transformation that requires community support. While the exact structure of citizen engagement will vary from city to city, here are some useful resources to get this key aspect of net-zero cities right:

  • The UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy released a briefing note that highlights a number of ways to assist citizen engagement, including through participatory and deliberative democracy, citizen-led initiatives, and behavioral approaches.
  • In an article from the National Civic League (U.S.), examples are provided of how civic engagement has been successfully deployed in a number of local sustainability initiatives. One such initiative is the creation of EcoDistricts (U.S.), which are urban districts certified as fostering social equity, economic opportunity, and ecological health.
  • The First Nations Major Projects Coalition (Canada) and the First Peoples Worldwide (U.S.) hosted an Indigenous-led net-zero conference where they collaborated with industry and government officials about how net-zero strategies will impact Indigenous rights and how Indigenous voices must be included in formulating the strategies.
  • C40 Cities publishes case studies of climate actions taken in cities around the world, including one such study on how Dakar, Senegal successfully institutionalized civic participation in the city’s climate-action planning.
  • C40 Cities’ Inclusive Climate Action Forum provides a networking platform where mayors can share best practices and opportunities for putting equity and inclusion at the forefront of local climate actions.
  • Companies such as CitizenLab can provide insights and a community-engagement platform for local governments.
  • Polisdigitocracy, a concept coined by the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, calls for executing participatory climate action at the city level with the aid of digital technologies.

Hold cities accountable to their net-zero pledges via transparency and equitable access to information. The Climate Action Tracker has developed a ten-step analysis that incorporates the need for transparent assessment of national net-zero targets. By providing transparency and access to information, cities can be held accountable by local activists.

  • One example of transparency is New York City’s Local Law 84, which requires the annual public disclosure of energy and water use in many buildings throughout the city.
  • A number of cities around the world disclose their climate-related data and emissions-reduction progress through CDP Cities, which has an Open Data Portal where the public can search datasets.
  • C40 Cities’ greenhouse gas emissions interactive dashboard can be a starting point for transparency. This system tracks city-level production-based emissions inventories in the organization’s member cities.
  • The Greenhouse Gas Protocol provides standards and tools for cities to measure and track progress toward net-zero commitments that can then be shared with citizens.

Adopt green government procurement policies. Green procurement refers to the purchase of goods and services that minimizes adverse environmental impacts. They include local sourcing, the use of biodegradable materials, and the construction of energy-efficient buildings. Public procurement is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly for the materials and construction services purchased in connection with large infrastructure projects such as roads, buildings, railways, and energy production.

Understand where coal-fired power plants can be phased out and decommissioned. The World Economic Forum provides four steps to such a decommissioning process, and this International Energy Agency report provides phase-out case studies from Canada, the UK, and Germany.

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