Urban path to net-zero: leading strategies of most energy-efficient cities

Climate targets

Cities around the world are joining in the global efforts to reduce the dramatic impacts of climate change and transition to cleaner and more sustainable living. They are taking important steps in developing their own energy, climate, and sustainable development strategies. However, not all levels of commitments are equal, and not all progress is the same. Some cities are significantly ahead of their peers in terms of setting ambitious goals, developing and implementing green strategies, and tracking the progress. Others need more guidance on how to turn their commitments into actions. (This section has been shortened from its original version.)

Figure 1: Net-zero target years for the different actor types[1]
Figure 2: Net-Zero Targets and Renewable Energy Targets in Cities, by Region, 2020[2]

Strategies and approaches to city transition reaching climate goals

When developing net-zero carbon strategies, cities are driven by a range of objectives, including mitigating climate change; advancing sustainable development; reducing air, water, and soil pollution; improving citizens’ health and wellbeing; stimulating economic development; reducing municipal energy costs; and improving energy access and security (“Drivers for renewable energy cities,” REC-19, Figure 5, page 38). Depending on its geography, size, demographics, economic factors, and administration, a city may put a different level of importance on each driver and most cities pursue renewables for a diversity of reasons.

Figure 3: Renewable Energy in Total Final Energy Consumption, by sector, 2016

Leveraging best practices

At the heart of any city’s transition initiative should be building, transportation, energy, and water utility policies. Buildings are responsible for 70% of city carbon emissions. Reducing energy consumption in offices, residential buildings, and homes will be most impactful. Cities can expand community solar projects, storage capacity solutions investment, and energy efficiency educational programs to promote energy reduction opportunities. Transportation projects such as improving public mobility, vehicle electrification, accessibility of EV charging, modernizing airports and harbors are the second-largest category for city climate changes. Energy and water utility practices such as smart monitoring, even distribution, and offloading during peak hours, can be highly effective. A multi-use approach and multipurpose utilities are a way to the future. Homes could use the same water many times for landscaping, gardening, and toilet water — as much as 75% of domestic water can be reused (“How to build a water-smart city.” Bloomberg). Similarly, water purification and energy generation can be done by a single utility, which could be a cost-saving direction of the future for large wastewater and power generation plants (“Water utilities venture into energy generation to save money.” Water World). Artificial Intelligence (AI) and smart automation can also play a powerful role in analyzing usage, predicting the peaks, and optimizing load on the systems. Utility companies will have to decide if they are working with software companies, or if they want to become software companies in their own rights to manage decentralized grids, balance electricity supply and demand in real-time, and optimize energy use at reduced rates (“Why artificial intelligence is key to renewable energy grid resilience.” World Economic Forum, 30 March 2021). Weather predictive technologies (such as Tomorrow.io) offer innovative solutions for multiple industries, including weather intelligence for Energy and Utilities to plan to minimize downtime, optimize safety, and reduce costs. Finally, to be good global citizens of the future, cities must set sustainable goals based on mitigation and adaptation approaches and build in a new way instead of rebuilding back the old systems that no longer can meet the needs of the planet and future generations.


Transitioning cities to sustainable operations is a must to ensure the future of our planet. There are major components in meeting the goals: technology, funding, policy, and implementation. The technology component is already here; there are major commitments from the government, public and private sectors to provide funding; however, policy and implementation in many cases are still lagging. Reaching global net-zero emissions goals will require outlining plans for developing and realizing effective decarbonization strategies. Making a pledge is a good start; following with an actionable plan is a critical next step. Cities must learn from each other and take action to meet the pressing deadlines.



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Julia A. Graf

Julia A. Graf

Big data executive, impact investor, champion for a sustainable future