Briefing Note 8 – How Can We Achieve Net Zero in Cities, Regions, and the Private Sector?


Why Is It Important to Focus on the Substantial Scale of Climate Change Efforts?


Cities currently account for more than 70% of greenhouse gases, and around 80% of global GDP. The global urban population is set to rise to nearly 70% by the year 2050. 


While Copenhagen has made a Net Zero commitment by 2025, there are over 10,000 subnational regions and 6,000 cities and companies that have not set climate targets. Cities are therefore crucial sites in the transition from setting climate targets and the delivery of these ambitions. Empowering the local level through city-based global governance structures could facilitate achieving these targets. 


Fossil fuel companies that act as key electricity providers at the regional level need to be held accountable for their emissions. There is a need to ensure that a steady transition to renewables in underway, and requires pressure from various shareholders and stakeholders across different scales.


Grappling with the problems and solutions to climate breakdown could cause fear and anxiety among the public, given the dramatic changes required in their lifestyle choices. Continuous interaction with the public at the local level by city administrative authorities is necessary for retaining consensus around climate targets and policies, and for mobilising resources to implement these initiatives. 


What Are the Challenges Being Faced at Subnational Levels?


The transition of fossil fuel companies to renewable sources of energy has been slower than expected. Around 70% of these companies have been labelled as companies in transition, and have seen a positive growth in renewables. However, even though the number of utilities with a mixed asset base has increased over time but shares of renewables has remained low. 


It has been found that the transition from coal has been accompanied by greater growth in the production of gas. Thus, there is a need to think more critically about the transition to renewables and its implication for the net zero target. 


In terms of energy renovation for buildings, the number of dwellings renovated so far are lower than expected. The performance of renovated buildings has also been poor. The barriers for energy renovation include the lack of efforts taken by public sector stakeholders, difficulties faced by individual households in decision-making and the weaknesses of knowledge, skills and enterprise. 


Currently, renovations are still in experimental stage, such as in the case of the Energiesprong approach in France. The initiatives have been fragmented and have failed to be reproduced over the long term. In order to scale up renovations, there is a need for active government support and complementary public policy, changes in forms of contracts, stakeholder practices and the development of new skills.


At present, many companies are operating on the assumption that net zero is unachievable. Companies should set a date before which they will achieve net zero emissions - not just in their operations but also from the use of their products. Investor-owned fossil fuel companies should disclose current and targeted annual absolute emissions. A business model needs to be developed whereby verifiable mid-term targets are set for reducing emissions. These business plans should ensure profitability at net zero, in order to be sustainable. Shareholders must take an active role in questioning more, and scrutinizing the company's actions. 


What Are Some Recommendations for Net Zero at the Local Level?


Councils have an important role to play as a democratically elected body that can define the city. City councils could choose to take responsibility for its emissions, by declaring a climate emergency. This would involve acknowledging that business cannot continue as usual, and exceptional steps need to be taken to tackle climate issues. Local governing bodies would have to work in close partnership with others who have greater levels of control, and multilevel coordination is needed for effective contributions at the local level. 


At the local level, there is also the opportunity to develop the ‘Community Wealth Building Model’, which involves working alongside organisations that are anchored in the region or city in order to create new business opportunities and boost the local economy.  This might be seen as a way for local authorities to share ambitious goals around decarbonisation with the community more equitably, and generate mechanisms to support and hold one another accountable. For example, the council could look at energy purchase and procurement as a business case for local employment and wealth-building. 


Local governing bodies could also control various levers to prioritise retro-fitting in buildings, ensuring that private householders with higher carbon footprints to pay higher council taxes, and ensuring that new homes are built within the zero carbon guidelines. 


Lastly, citizen assemblies held by local administrative authorities present a democratic means whereby a microcosm of the city can be brought together to discuss efforts towards achieving net zero. 


What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?


  • Due to rapid urbanisation and subsequent large growth in GHGs, cities are crucial in setting and meeting climate targets 


  • Research has found that the transition from coal has resulted in greater growth of gas production, so we need to think more critically about energy transition and their implications for net zero 


  • Companies should set a date before which they will achieve net zero, as many are currently operating on the assumption that they will not achieve this goal