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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

City Climate Finance Gap Fund completes first year of operation

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The City Climate Finance Gap Fund (the Gap Fund) has approved technical assistance for 33 cities across the developing world since its operational launch in September 2020, filling a critical gap in technical assistance funding to help cities turn their climate ambitions into finance-ready projects.

Marking its one-year operational launch anniversary today, the Gap Fund has received over 140 expressions of interests and approved technical assistance for 33 cities in India, Mexico, Ethiopia, Morocco, Democratic Republic of Congo, Panama, Senegal, Vietnam, Kosovo, Montenegro, Ecuador, South Africa, Vanuatu, Colombia, Indonesia, Brazil, Guatemala, Uganda and Ukraine. An additional 30 cities are currently undergoing a detailed assessment for potential Gap Fund support, with a total target of at least 180 cities.

The Gap Fund is currently capitalized at €55 million, with a target of at least €100 million and the potential to unlock an estimated €4 billion in investments. The aim is to help cities understand their exposure to climate challenges, develop plans and strategies to reduce emissions and vulnerability to climate risks, and identify and prioritize climate-smart urban infrastructure investments.

The Gap Fund demonstrates a unique collaborative model: With funding from Germany and Luxembourg, the Fund is co-implemented by the World Bank and the European Investment Bank in partnership with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit and works directly with city groups and networks including GCOM, ICLEI, C40 and CCFLA. This concerted effort has helped raise awareness about the importance of cities and urban systems in the climate agenda and could not come at a more critical time, as the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report confirms that cities are the hotspots of global warming, with the global urban climate finance gap estimated in the trillions of dollars, especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Gap Fund also contributes cutting-edge knowledge, tools and recommendations. For example, by featuring in theState of Cities Climate Finance Report Part 2: Enabling Conditions for Mobilizing Urban Climate Finance, whichprovides critical systems-level conceptual frameworks and recommendations for city, country and climate decision-makers. The Gap Fund has also developed or packaged user-friendly practical tools and notes for operational practitioners and project developers on the ground.

The way cities develop in the coming years, especially in these regions, will influence the trajectory of future greenhouse gas emissions, and the susceptibility of cities to increased flood risks and urban heat island effects. The focus on cities is also reflected in the World Bank’s Climate Action Plan, which has identified cities and urban systems as a focus area on a par with energy, transport, food and industry.

Some of the Gap Fund’s most recent grant activities include:

  • San Miguelito, Panama: Identify climate-smart and energy-efficient urban interventions for new cable car infrastructure, with the potential to cut emissions and reduce vulnerability to floods.
  • Dakar, Senegal: Integrate low-carbon and climate-resilient considerations into the planning, development and construction of affordable and green housing in the greater Dakar region, including piloting  a green building certification incentive for building developers.
  • Mangalore and Kolar, India: Prepare a climate diagnostic report for solid waste management as well as an action plan for improving and financing low-carbon solid waste management services, including a pre-feasibility study.
  • Bogota, Colombia: Provide technical assistance for greenhouse gas and air quality analytics, city-wide coordination and recommendations to incorporate low-carbon and climate-resilient considerations in the Low-Carbon Vital Neighbourhoods in Bogota– the first pilot in Latin America to implement a “Proximity City Urban Development Model” (also known as the 15-minute city model).
  • Chefchaouen, Morocco: Prepare a study on low-carbon solid waste management activities including waste sorting, biogas recovery, leachate treatment and the use of solar energy.
  • Vinnytsia, Ukraine: Support climate change adaptation measures along the Southern Bug River, such as new green spaces along the embankments, development of beaches to improve river transport and the construction of a new bridge to improve walking routes north and south of the city.
  • Campinas, Sao Paolo State, Brazil: Promote climate change adaptation and reduce flood risks through nature-based solutions along the Capivari river.
  • Danané, Côte d’Ivoire: Support the deployment of a fleet of 600 low-carbon, low-cost solar tricycle taxis to meet the city’s most pressing mobility needs for people, including expectant mothers, and cargo.
  • Escuintla, San José and Iztapa, Guatemala: Assess the quality of existing waste generation and characterisation data of municipal solid waste and make any necessary additions, compare organic solid waste treatment alternatives and suggest improvements to the existing organisational structure and governance.
  • Santa Marta, Colombia: Improve and enhance the city’s urban forest and forest management, and identify funding opportunities at regional, national or international level as well as links to other potential natural infrastructure projects along Santa Marta’s ecological corridors.
  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Improve hydrological modelling to assess urban flood risks and economic modelling to assess the viability of restoring wetlands as a natural barrier in flood-prone areas and carry out stakeholder consultations.
  • Makindye Ssabagabo, Uganda: Study existing waste generation, carry out a characterisation study of municipal solid waste using random and seasonal data, and compare organic solid waste treatment alternatives.
  • Palembang, Musi Rawas and Lubuklinggau cities, Indonesia: Prepare a cost-benefit analysis, strategy and action plan for green, resilient construction and energy-efficient affordable housing in these three cities. Project would help inform the national Government One Million Housing program which aims to provide incentives for developers to build 220,000 homes per annum and to upgrade 160,000 affordable homes. 

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Urban Development

WEF Launches Toolbox of Solutions to Accelerate Decarbonization in Cities

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With the percentage of people living in cities projected to rise to 68% by 2050, resulting in high energy consumption, greater infrastructure needs and, carbon emissions, cities have a critical role to play in the race to reach net zero. To help address this challenge, the World Economic Forum, is releasing today the first iteration of its Toolbox of Solutions, designed and built in collaboration with Accenture.

The toolbox is an interactive digital platform containing more than 200 practical solutions to help city leaders, national governments and businesses evaluate and identify optimal solutions for near-term implementation, kick-starting their decarbonization journey. The first-of-its-kind toolbox draws on input and case studies from more than 110 cities, businesses, academics, civil society leaders and other urban stakeholders around the world and across sectors to capture best practices and case studies for urban transformation and decarbonization.

The solutions include policy, business and finance models that result in reduced emissions and other valuable outcomes such as job creation and improved air quality. These solutions are also tailored to specific city attributes including the electricity grid’s health, local population density and income level.

“Decarbonization solutions already exist – we don’t need to wait for the next big innovation. This platform provides examples of policies and business models that have been used successfully around the world. We are starting with 200 solutions and expect to have many more over the course of the next year,” said Kristen Panerali, Head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Programme, Net-Zero Carbon Cities, World Economic Forum.

“Urban ecosystems are pivotal in our global journey to net zero, driven by clean and smart electrification. These sustainability initiatives can help accelerate efforts to address climate change with practical and integrated energy solutions for urban transformation for cities of any size around the world,” said Jean-Marc Ollagnier, Chief Executive Officer, Europe, Accenture.

Achieving net-zero emissions at city scale will require a transformation in how energy is produced, distributed, and consumed. A related report shows how the built environment and mobility can serve as a catalyst for urban transformation and decarbonization anywhere in the world.

The Toolbox of Solutions is part of the Forum’s Net-Zero Carbon Cities programme, which brings together businesses with city, regional and national government leaders to accelerate urban transitions to a net-zero future. The programme’s objective is to align and scale efforts across businesses, cities and national-level governments to deliver urban ecosystems that are sustainable, resilient and equitable. The programme aims to enable transformation towards clean electrification and circularity, using integrated energy solutions to address energy, buildings and mobility. The Net-Zero Carbon Cities programme is co-chaired by Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Schneider Electric, and Francesco Starace, Chief Executive Officer, Enel.

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Urban Development

As cities fill tech gaps, power of smart cities unleashes

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Governing Smart Cities, a report released today by the World Economic Forum, provides a benchmark for the ethical and responsible use of smart city technologies by looking into the inner workings of 36 Pioneer Cities. The authors of the report seek to help city leaders identify gaps, protect long-term interests and keep up with the pace of technology.

According to the report, cities of all sizes, geographies and levels of development have serious governance gaps, such as the failure to designate a person accountable for cybersecurity or to assess privacy risks when procuring new technology systems. However, leaders can close these gaps and protect long-term interests by acting now.

Written in partnership with Deloitte, the report follows the call to action from G20 ministers in 2019 that resulted in the creation of the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance. The Alliance and its partners represent over 200,000 cities, local governments, leading companies, start-ups, research institutions and civil society communities. It acts as a platform to help cities strengthen their knowledge, expertise and governance of smart city technologies. The Forum is its secretariat.

The 36 Pioneer Cities surveyed span six continents and 22 countries, and have populations ranging from 70,000 to over 15 million. Policy experts and government officials were interviewed from January to March 2021 to assess the implementation of a set of five essential policies identified by the G20 Alliance last year.

Key findings

Nearly all the cities surveyed – including those that are generally regarded as leading global cities – have critical policy gaps related to their governance of smart city technologies

Despite an unprecedented increase in global cybersecurity attacks, most cities have not designated a specific government official as ultimately accountable for cybersecurity.

While the majority of cities recognize the importance of protecting the privacy of their citizens, only 17% of cities surveyed carry out privacy impact assessments before deploying new technologies.

Less than half of the cities surveyed have processes in place to ensure that technologies they procure are accessible to elderly residents or individuals with limited physical abilities.

Open data policy is perhaps the only area in which most cities in the sample have achieved a level of basic implementation. Even here, only 15% of the Pioneer Cities have integrated their open data portals with their wider city data infrastructure, which is a necessary step towards making a city “open by default”.

“Cities are continuing to invest heavily in new technologies to automate and improve city services and urban life. Yet our findings validate our fears that most cities are falling behind when it comes to ensuring effective oversight and governance of these technologies,” said Jeff Merritt, Head of Internet of Things and Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum. “The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance is working with cities across the globe to address this gap, beginning with more than 15 policy workshops with city officials this summer.”

“Cities have an array of opportunities to become more resilient and sustainable. Technology is an enabler but, to fulfill its full potential, Cities need to revise their governance, operational, and financing models. Here lies the biggest challenge Cities face. Deloitte is proud to have worked with the Forum in this initiative. It is fundamental for us all to gain consciousness of the complexity of the issues and focus on how the moment we are all living can be a key opportunity”, said Miguel Eiras Antunes, Global Smart Cities Leader, Deloitte Global. “Now is the moment for a great urban transformation. Addressing urban challenges through the lenses of sustainability, inclusion, and technology is critical to develop and implement a roadmap to guide cities with their governance of smart technology and make an impact that matters.”

How to take action

The report concludes that city leaders and officials need to take action before these governance gaps become material risk and affect residents. The report’s authors also call for national policymakers, civil society and the business community to help support local governments in overcoming these challenges. Inclusion, data privacy and cybersecurity attacks are top concerns and the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance has a mandate to help cities close the governance gaps that this report has uncovered. Cities looking for assistance in identifying and addressing their policy gaps are encouraged to contact the Alliance via their website.

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