Investing in building energy efficiency, public transport and waste management in cities could unlock savings of US$17 trillion by 2050, new research from the New Climate Economy has found, with the potential to cut global emissions by 3.7 gigatonnes by 2030.

The working paper, Accelerating Low-Carbon Development in the World’s Cities, shows why cities are the battleground for the future of the planet: 1.4 million people being added to cities each week; an area the size of Manhattan being added every day; and annual economic activity of US$62 trillion, expected to rise to US$115 trillion (87 per cent of global GDP) by 2030.

“The infrastructure investments made in cities over the next few decades will lock the world into either a higher or lower carbon path,” the report says.

It also found that with federal support, such as low-carbon innovation programs, reduced fossil fuel subsidies and carbon pricing, the benefits could increase to $22 trillion.

Mayor of Rio de Janeiro and chair of C40 Cities Eduardo Paes said better urban development was of particular importance in the rapidly urbanising developing world.

“Cities around the world are already leading the way in implementing sustainable and innovative urban solutions. By sharing and scaling-up these best practices through international collaboration, cities can save money and accelerate global climate action,” he said.

The report recommends that cities commit to developing and implementing low-carbon urban development strategies by 2020 to take advantage of the huge economic opportunities.

For buildings, actions suggested include:

  • new building heating efficiency regulations – buildings are constructed at passive heating levels, <30 kWh/m2 from 2020–2030 and 15 kWh/ m2 from 2031–2050
  • building retrofits – old buildings are upgraded at a rate of 1.4-3 per cent of the building stock a year, such that all existing buildings are upgraded by 2040, with energy intensity reduced by 30-40 per cent compared with a baseline scenario
  • appliances and lighting – efficient lighting and appliances are aggressively deployed
  • solar PV – building-mounted solar PV is ambitiously installed

Transport opportunities include land use planning to reduce motorised passenger travel activity, expansion of public transport, car efficiency and electrification, and freight logistics and efficiency improvements. Waste opportunities include recycling rate increases to 80 per cent and landfill gas capture increases.

The report calls for “creative policy instruments and innovative financing” to overcome the barriers to investment into low carbon cities, and says for every $1 invested in improving the creditworthiness of cities, more than US$100 can be leveraged through private finance for low-carbon urban infrastructure.

It says donor agencies, city networks and organisations, multilateral and regional development banks and other stakeholders should create an integrated package of at least US$1 billion for technical assistance, capacity-building and finance to support the world’s largest 500 cities to transition into low carbon cities.

It also recommends cities join the Compact of Mayors, a global coalition of mayors and city officials pledging to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, enhance resilience to climate change and track progress transparently.

Nick Godfrey, head of policy and urban development at the New Climate Economy and an author of the report, said the US$17 trillion figure was a very conservative figure as it “only looks at direct energy savings generated from investment, which are a small proportion of the wider social, economic and environmental benefits of these investments”.

CRC for Low Carbon Living welcomes findings

The CRC for Low Carbon Living said the report validated the importance of its work.

“The report reconfirms the significance of the more than 70 projects we are working on with research, industry and government partners to enable buildings and cities to operate at the highest performance level, whilst engaging with the community to understand the drivers and behaviours surrounding low carbon initiatives,” CRCLCL chief executive Deo Prasad said.

He said many Australian cities had already joined the Compact of Mayors, including Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, the ACT and Sydney.

“We hope to see this commitment grow,” Professor Prasad said.

The CRC has been working with decision makers in Australia to help them progress the transition to low carbon cities.

“Sharing the knowledge our researchers and partners have gathered since the CRCLCL was formed three years ago is imperative to enable leaders, policy-makers and planners in Australian cities to become more effective in creating low to zero carbon buildings and spaces. We are being very proactive in this area.”