Picture: 123RF/TOMAS1111
Picture: 123RF/TOMAS1111

National governments need to do more to help cities combat climate change, as they wield the power to make or break cities’ capacity to cut carbon emissions, warns a new report from the International Coalition for Urban Transitions.

Its release comes ahead of the UN secretary-general’s climate action summit, which begins in New York on September 23. 

The call for governments to do more to enable cities to introduce low-carbon measures has direct relevance for SA, where the DA-led City of Cape Town has launched legal action to get the right to buy electricity directly from independent power producers (IPPs) instead of solely from state-owned electricity generator Eskom.

Eskom currently has the exclusive right to purchase electricity for resale, including that produced from renewable energy IPPs.

SA is among the world’s biggest carbon emitters, largely due to its dependence on coal-fired power stations and energy-inefficient industries. Its cities play a key role in carbon emissions, as they are centres of economic activity and energy consumption. Globally, cities are home to half the world’s population and are responsible for three quarters of the world’s carbon emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that global carbon-dioxide emissions must reach net-zero emission by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.

Cities already have the technology to cut more than 90% of their emissions, and could deliver over half the reduction needed to keep global temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, says the Climate Emergency Urban Opportunity report, released on September 19.

“Cities will make or break the climate response,” said Anton Cartwright, a researcher at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, which is a member of the Coalition for Urban Transitions.

“Cities offer a locus for change, especially in middle-income countries like ours, where cities are in a state of flux. The four big opportunities that cities offer are in energy, building codes, transport and solid waste management,” he said.

“A number of South African cities are part of international climate networks and have begun accessing climate finance and green bonds. City planners are realising that low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure and services are not a luxury but the best way and the only sensible way to develop their cities,” he said in an interview with Business Day.

The report makes the case for cities that are compact, connected and clean, arguing that an investment of $1.8-trillion a year in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions would generate annual returns of $7-trillion by 2050 based on cost savings alone. Many low-carbon measures would pay for themselves within five years, it says.

“It will be cities that lead the response to the climate emergency,” said Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel professor of economics and government at the London School of Economics. 

He said compact, clean and connected cities would offer countries a competitive advantage as they were more attractive places in which to live and would foster innovation.

“This is the inclusive growth story. There is no high-carbon growth story,” he said. Countries that did not pursue the transition would face the high costs of inaction.

High-carbon systems will become unprofitable or inoperable as markets and regulations evolve, and the result will be stranded assets and workers left behind as industries fail or relocate,” he said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za