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Urban Development

District energy: A secret weapon for climate action and human health

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Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina is getting a new district energy system. Photo by City of Banja Luka.

If you’re sweltering in Delhi or shivering in Detroit and want affordable, environmentally friendly cooling or heating, district energy may be your best bet.

A district energy system is a network of pipes that heat and cool buildings across a neighbourhood or entire city. Modern district energy systems connect renewables, waste heat, thermal storage, power grids, thermal grids and heat pumps—delivering up to 50 per cent less primary energy consumption for heating and cooling.  Visionary cities and countries have been able to decarbonize heating and cooling and achieve high efficiency, renewable energy, and CO2 targets with modern district energy.

To replicate and scale up best practices worldwide, UN Environment launched the District Energy in Cities Initiative.

Consider just one of the District Energy in Cities Initiative’s 36 cities, Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With the help of the Initiative and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the city updated its 35-year-old network. These refits increased the share of renewables by 75 per cent, cut harmful air pollutants by 94 per cent and saved US$1 million a year in fuel costs.

Well-designed district energy systems don’t just lessen climate change. They also bring benefits across the sustainable development agenda—improving human health by cutting air pollution, increasing access to affordable and clean energy, and creating green and decent jobs.

Similar benefits are being achieved across the District Energy Initiative’s 14 countries.

From India to Chile

District cooling is accelerating across India. Amaravati, the new state capital of Andhra Pradesh, is the first of the Initiative’s cities in India to receive investment from the Initiative’s partner Tabreed on a district cooling project for public buildings. The Initiative is supporting Amaravati to go further, innovating new technologies and expanding the mandate beyond public buildings in line with the objective of Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh N. Chandrababu Naidu, who recently stated at the city’s annual Happy Cities Summit: “I want district cooling for all the buildings in Amaravati.”

Meanwhile, Rajkot is the first Indian city to include district cooling in its Smart City Plan: the US$49 million project will save up to 50 per cent of CO2 and electricity, significantly reducing harmful refrigerants and peak demand by up to 30MW.

 “We are working to make Rajkot a ‘Climate Resilient City’ and have already prepared an action plan and committed to reduce carbon emissions,” says Bina Acharya, the city’s mayor. “Rajkot’s energy consumption inventory shows that electricity consumption in the building sector is highest due to cooling and lighting. Rajkot is now moving forward with district cooling to reduce energy consumption in the cooling sector.”

Working with the Initiative, India has recently incorporated district energy into the Indian Cooling Action Plan as a priority technology to reduce the economic and environmental impact of the country’s skyrocketing cooling demand.  

Similarly, in Latin America, Chile has incorporated district energy under its National Heat Strategy and Presidential Plan to address air pollution. Recently, Chile’s Ministry of Energy signed a collaboration agreement with the District Energy in Cities Initiative and the county’s largest industry association to boost district energy.

“The importance of this agreement lies in bringing together public and private efforts,” says Ricardo Irarrázabal, Undersecretary of Energy for Chile. “We are beginning a long-term relationship with a common goal, to have more efficient energy and to reduce pollution levels in the southern cities of our country. In this way, we are advancing more and more in the energy modernization of Chile.”

A district heating project in the Chilean city of Coyhaique, led by the Regional Office of the Ministry of Environment with UN Environment, is part of an approach to cut air pollution. The regional government has set aside up to US$2.8 million for the construction and implementation of the first stages of the project.

These are all encouraging developments which show the potential to bring massive savings in energy use across the globe.

Heating, cooling and hot water mostly supplied by fossil fuels

Heating, cooling and hot water represent 60 per cent of energy demand in buildings, most of it supplied by fossil fuels. Cities contain over half the world’s population, consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 per cent of CO2 emissions.

Forward-looking cities are connecting district energy with efficient buildings, waste and renewables to create integrated urban systems and achieve resilience and circularity. This will be a topic of discussion at the Cities Summit during the 4th UN Environment Assembly. 

About the District Energy in Cities Initiative

In 2016, during the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, 197 nations adopted the New Urban Agenda, which recognizes modern district energy systems as a key solution to integrate renewables and energy efficiency in cities. The District Energy in Cities Initiative is coordinated by UN Environment with financial support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), the Global Environment Facility, and the Italian Ministry of Environment and Protection of Land and Sea.

As one of six accelerators of the Sustainable Energy for All Energy Efficiency Accelerator Platform, the Initiative aims to double the rate of energy efficiency improvements for heating and cooling in buildings by 2030, helping countries meet their climate and sustainable development targets.

The Initiative supports local and national governments to build know-how and implement enabling policies that will accelerate investment in low-carbon and climate-resilient district energy systems. It currently provides technical support to 36 cities in four pilot countries (Chile, China, India and Serbia) and 10 replication countries (Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Egypt, Malaysia, Mongolia, Morocco, Russia, the Seychelles and Tunisia).

UN Environment

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Urban Development

New Report Shows Shape of Urban Growth Underpins Livability and Sustainable Growth

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A first-of-its-kind World Bank analysis, of the shape and growth of nearly 10,000 cities between 1990 and 2015, finds that the most successful urban areas are those that connect their growth to economic demand and then support this with comprehensive plans, policies and investments that help avoid uncontrolled sprawl.

The new report, Pancakes to Pyramids – City Form for Sustainable Growth, analyzes the dynamic, two-way relationship between a city’s economic growth and the floor space available to residents and businesses. It finds that a city is most likely to be its best version when its shape is driven by economic fundamentals and a conducive policy environment – namely, a robust job market, flexible building regulations, dependable public transit and access to essential services, public spaces, and cultural amenities.

Ultimately, getting livable space right, hinges on how a city manages its growth as populations and incomes increase, factoring in three dimensions of expansion – horizontal, vertical or within existing spaces (known as infill), the report finds. This will be key as cities, on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, begin planning for a long-term, resilient, and inclusive recovery.

“Cities are at the frontier of development; they are where people go to chase their dreams of a better life for themselves and their families,” said Juergen Voegele, Vice President for Sustainable Development, World Bank. “This report helps us understand why a city grows outward, inward or up. As we support countries with their COVID-19 recovery efforts, this will also help us reflect on what makes a city livable and remind us that well-planned urban growth is good for both people and planet.”

In the average Sub-Saharan African city, 60 percent of the population lives in slums—a much larger share than the 34 percent average in cities in developing countries. The lack of floor space takes a severe toll on livability—with major consequences in times of pandemics like COVID-19. Many South Asian cities face similar issues.

Horizontal growth is inevitable for most cities. People will continue to migrate to urban areas for opportunities and a better quality of life, so it is crucial for cities to plan for this trend. As urban populations grow, one way to create more space per inhabitant is by building up instead of out. This could also help reduce crowding, discourage long commutes, draw more people to public transit and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. But building tall, or accommodating more people in a city, is dependent on economic demand and the business environment as it requires better technology, large investments, and higher returns on capital.

“Understanding the multiple drivers of city growth—a precondition for livable density in cities—can help city leaders focus on the right policy actions,” said Somik Lall, co-author of the report. “If managed well, cities that take a more pyramid-like shape can provide an impetus to accelerate sustainable development by getting people out of cars, cutting commute times, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.”

Today, around 55 percent of the world lives in urban areas. By 2050, this number is projected to surpass two-thirds of the global population, with much of the new urbanization happening in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. While such growth signals opportunities and better livelihoods for millions of people, it also puts immense strain on cities, especially in countries that contend with low incomes and weak institutional and fiscal capabilities.

By describing how economic productivity shapes decisions by households and firms to locate in cities, and how the quantity and spatial distribution of urban floor space respond to these changes in demand, the report aims to help decision makers sort through competing legal and regulatory approaches, evaluate their investments in infrastructure, and mobilize finance for durable urban investments, particularly for essential services such as transport, water provision, solid waste management, and sewage removal and treatment.

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Urban Development

First international online forum Smart Cities Moscow

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The first international online forum Smart Cities Moscow ended in Moscow. 86 speakers from Russia, China, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, the United States, Sweden, and other countries spoke at the forum’s business program. More than 193,000 people watched the broadcasts of the panel discussions and sessions.

“A modern approach to digitalization is unthinkable without exchange of experience and conversation between cities. Moscow, being one of the world leaders of digital transformation, acted as a platform for such a conversation, and it is important for us that the international community responded with interest to this initiative. Recent years have especially shown how important it is to develop the IT infrastructure of cities and create online services focused on the daily needs of city dwellers. Synchronization and joint efforts will make megacities even more sustainable, smart and comfortable for living,” said Eduard Lysenko, Minister of the Moscow Government, Head of the Department of Information Technologies of Moscow.

The need for global communities to cooperate in creating and developing smart cities was also stressed by Juwang Zhu, director of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Division of Public Institutions and Digital Government.

“We at the UN support universal interaction in terms of the implementation of new technologies. I am glad that the Smart Cities Moscow forum will now be an annual event. This is very important: to encourage cities to exchange practices, to develop digitalization with the whole world, so that there would be more and more smart cities,” Juwang Zhu said, adding that the greatest benefit of using new technologies was seen by countries during the fight against the pandemic.

The business program of the forum consisted of 15 sessions divided into three main directions: “Smart City Infrastructure and Technologies”, “Smart City for Life”, and “Sustainable Development of Smart City”. The experts shared their experiences of using digital solutions in transport, urban planning, tourism, ecology, energy and other sectors important for the cities. Separate sessions were devoted to piloting 5G networks, application of artificial intelligence in urban processes and big data analysis for urban development planning.

Best practices and ecosystem approach to the digitalization of cities were discussed during the plenary session of the forum. Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin spoke about the experience of introducing technologies in the capital and creating digital platforms for residents. He noted that Moscow digital projects cover absolutely all spheres of life, focusing primarily on human needs. Representatives of the relevant departments of the Moscow City Government spoke in more detail about the capital’s IT projects during the panel discussions.

Mr. Chen Jining, Mayor of Beijing, Mr. Bakytzhan Sagintayev, Mayor of Almaty, Mr. Saeed Belhoul, Director of Electronic Government Operations of Dubai Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Mr. Mohamed Salah Eldin, Project Manager for the construction and formation of the smart city Nour (new administrative capital of Egypt) and Mayor of Fort Lauderdale Dean Trantalis also shared their experience at the plenary session.

One of the key events of the forum was the awarding of two certificates of compliance with international ISO standards for sustainable and smart cities to Moscow. “Until now, there has never been a precedent in history when both of these certificates were awarded simultaneously,” said Patricia McCarney, president of the International City Data Council (WCCD).

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Urban Development

How Cities Can Take Action to Drive the Energy Transition

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The dominance of fossil fuels in the urban energy supply puts cities on the frontline of climate change. Cities account for about 75% of global primary energy use and are responsible for 70 per cent of energy related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making them key actors in both national and global efforts to transition to a net-zero future.

Cities can catalyse the shift to a low-carbon future

A new report published today by IRENA, outlines ways in which cities can catalyse the shift to a low-carbon future – in turn supporting regional and national governments with the achievement of sustainable energy targets and the realisation of global climate objectives. Cities can be target setters, planners and regulators. They are often owners and thus operators of municipal infrastructure. Cities are always direct consumers of energy and therefore aggregators of demand, and can be facilitators and financiers of renewable energy projects.

Renewable Energy Policies for Cities also presents case studies from small- and medium-sized cities in various regions, demonstrating that cities are already stepping up to the responsibility. Examples from China, Costa Rica, and Uganda show that despite limited access to financing and policy support, the clear benefits of sustainable energy in an urban context have inspired action.

Solar Power in Kasese, Uganda

In Kasese, Uganda, for example, the municipality recognised its significant potential for solar energy, in turn leading to the establishment of Kasese’s Municipal Sustainable Energy Strategy in 2017. IRENA contributed to Kasese’s journey in deploying solar energy with its SolarCityEngine, a web-based application to assist homes, businesses and municipal authorities in evaluating the prospects of electricity generation using rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV). The online simulator allowed the municipality to assess the costs of incentive, affordability, and the total volume of investments.

A set of policy measures then followed, which included efforts to attract investments, programmes to train households and small businesses to deploy home-based solar system, and awareness-raising activities to ensure acceptance by residents. As a result, the residents of Kasese embraced the deployment of solar PV in their city, including their homes. The shift from polluting kerosene lamps to clean solar power brought improved health to many and presented new economic opportunities as people saved money on electricity.

E-mobility in Cartago, Grecia and Guanacaste in Costa Rica

In Cartago, Grecia, and Guanacaste in Costa Rica, electric mobility (e-mobility) is the new frontier in achieving net zero emissions. E-mobility is presented as a natural choice for the country thanks to its high renewables share in power supply, the availability of space for infrastructure, the short average of driving distance, and the optimal average temperature for electric vehicles (EVs).

With effective policies in place, the report highlights that Cartago, Grecia, and Guanacaste have all witnessed a positive increase in e-mobility infrastructure. The easy access to facilities, combined with the cost efficiency of EVs, motivates residents to make the shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to EVs, and adopt a more sustainable way to commute. Electric buses also increased in number, not only creating jobs for trainers and drivers, but also reducing demand for private driving, and consequently GHG emissions.

Wind-powered heating in Zhangjiakou, China 

In Zhangjiakou, China, residents attested to the positive change brought about by a wind-powered heating system. After abandoning coal for heating, residents found the air to be cleaner, which motivated people to enjoy nature and socialise more in outdoor settings. The wind power also fuelled growth in the city as businesses increasingly sought to base their operations in Zhangjiakou, to benefit from the low-cost electricity produced by the wind power.

Geothermal energy for district heating and cooking in Xiong’an, China 

Xiong’an became the first smog-free city in Northern China thanks to the development of geothermal energy. With its low operation and maintenance costs, as well as resilience to weather conditions, geothermal has successfully replaced coal-generated district heating in Xiong’an. Residents enjoy the benefits from reduced heating costs, and the geothermal power plant together with district thermal grid creates jobs for the city.

Geothermal energy for district heating in Bogatić, Serbia

In Serbia, the success of Bogatić municipality in deploying geothermal energy for district heating system has motivated other municipalities to exploit their geothermal potential. After discovering the cost efficiency and the reduced pollution resulting from it, residents and financial institutions are now the advocates for the technology. See the guidelines for policy makers on Integrating low-temperature renewables in district energy systems.

Global energy transformation starts at a local level

Examples presented in the report showcase best practices for other cities working towards a decarbonised energy supply. What they emphasise is the importance of strong alignment between local and national governments, and of proactive local resident, community group and business engagement. For the global race to zero to move at an accelerated pace, the world’s urban environments must be empowered to take meaningful actions.

Read more in the Renewable Energy Policies forCities and related case studies, also available in Spanish and Chinese. The reports and case studies were produced with the support of the International Climate Initiative

IRENA

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