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A quarter of cities now have renewables targets but ‘huge untapped potential’ remains

The City of Oxford was highlighted in the report for its Energy Superhub project. Image: Abdulhakeem Samae (Pixabay).

The City of Oxford was highlighted in the report for its Energy Superhub project. Image: Abdulhakeem Samae (Pixabay).

A billion people now live in a city with a renewable energy target or policy, almost a quarter of the global urban population.

According to a new report from REN21, entitled Renewables in Cities Global Status Report, 799 cities have renewable energy policies while 834 had targets in place by the end of 2020.

Of these, 796 cities had net zero commitments and 1,852 city governments had declared a climate emergency. This is particularly important for global decarbonisation efforts, as cities are responsible for around ¾ of global final energy use and account for around 75% of CO2 emissions from global final energy use.

“With their impact at scale, cities are our best bet to plan, develop and build a renewable future. But all too often their potential for transformation remains massively underused,” said REN21’s executive director, Rana Adib.

“It’s a tough job to turn low-carbon ambitions into reality in built and densely packed environments. National governments must put money, capacity and above all legislative powers into the hands of local authorities.”

Beyond renewables policies, 67 cities have electric vehicle targets and 163 had divested from fossil fuels. In the UK, many cities have brought in low-emission vehicle zones both to improve air quality and drive adoption of electric transport. There were 249 passed or proposed LEZs worldwide by mid-2020, including in cities such as Aberdeen, Bath, Birmingham, Dundee, Edinburgh, Leeds, Leicester and Southampton in the UK.

A number of UK cities were highlighted in the report, with Oxford in particular highlighted for its commitment to decarbonisation. In 2019, the city declared a climate emergency and set a net zero target of 2030, while the City Council itself was targeting net zero in its own operations by the end of 2020.

Part of this transformation includes the Energy Superhub Oxford, which is looking to reduce emissions by 40% through decarbonised heat and transport utilising heat pumps and EVs. Additionally, it is set to include the world’s largest hybrid energy storage system, with a 50MW battery supporting a 10km network of EV charging points and ground-source heat pumps in 200 homes.

Other cities around the UK have set their sights on net zero, such as Manchester which is targeting 2038, Bristol which is targeting 2030 and Glasgow which is also targeting 2030. All these are aiming to reach the goal before the UK’s legally binding net zero by 2050 target.

Within cities, many boroughs and areas have also set themselves key decarbonisation goals, such as of Hackney Council in London – which in 2020 announced it is now sourcing all of its electricity from 100% renewable sources.

In December, a group of 41 city mayors and council leaders committed to push for more government funding for clean energy projects in their local authorities, as part of the UK100 Net Zero Pledge.

While a lot of progress has been made over the last year according to REN21’s report, there are still obstacles to overcome. This includes powerful fossil fuel interests standing in the way of phase-out programs, meaning there is still “huge untapped potential” according to Martina Otto, who heads the cities work at the United Nations Environmental Programme.

"We can both increase the level of ambition and progress in meeting national climate commitments if national and regional governments around the world provide cities with support well beyond the creation of better financial conditions,” she continued.

“Getting over territorial boundaries to empower cities means unleashing the power of our strongest allies.”

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