Designing Cities to Reduce Emissions

Published September 13, 2021

IMAGE CREDIT: Andrius Kaziliunas /

Cities around the world are responsible for 70 percent of carbon emissions and are significantly impacted by the effects of climate change. The additional infrastructure costs for climate change mitigation and adaptation are anticipated to continue to rise as towns and cities continue to grapple with the impacts.

Decisions made at the local level have a major impact on cutting emissions and meeting national goals of reaching net zero by 2050 with many cities setting more ambitious timelines to reach this goal. Acting on addressing climate change is good for municipal finances too. An analysis by the City of Leeds in the UK showed that taking action to reach net zero would cut the city’s energy bill by £651 million a year, as well as creating 1,500 jobs for the next decade.

When it comes to infrastructure, local government has a big impact. Local levels of government are responsible for planning and permitting, running transit systems, and maintaining roads, provide housing, delivering public services, and in the case of Canada often running public utilities. Local governments may only be directly responsible for up to 10% of emissions using the example of Mississauga in Ontario, they have an indirect impact on 40%. The UK’s Climate Change Committee estimated that local authorities are directly responsible for 2- 5% of emissions but can have control over indirect emissions of 40-80%.

The convergence of people and infrastructure requires a systematic approach to cutting emissions that factors in these interdependencies. This approach must look at policies, urban planning, building performance, public service delivery, and community engagement.

Key Themes

  1. Vision and Leadership: Cities need to adapt a systems-based approach with an equity lens to examine urban planning, building performance, transportation use, and sources of energy. Ambitious approaches succeed when progress on the ground is clearly communicated to residents generating local buy-in, and work is completed collaboratively across levels of government.
  2. Implementation: Cities must look at the biggest sources of emissions from their infrastructure delivery and operations. The planning process is one such area where cities can effectively address the urgency of climate change and indirectly impact the wider community in driving change. Early engagement with broad, representative cross-sections of the community helps understand how to plan equitable communities.
  3. Financing: There are a variety of financing solutions that can garner private interest and help accelerate the transition to net zero. At the national levels, both the UK and Canada have established Infrastructure Banks to fill the gap and establish integrated thinking. Cities have also been innovative in funding net zero solutions that target building retrofits, efficient waste management, and other cost-effective measures through local partnerships with the private sector to catalyze and scale low-carbon solutions.

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