Mark Watts is the executive director of C40, a global network of mayors from the world’s leading cities who are working together to confront the climate crisis.
World leaders are meeting in Paris this week to discuss today’s global energy and climate crises. Cities are central to these discussions – and similar ones happening in Brussels and worldwide – because cities are responsible for more than 75% of global energy consumption.
Urban leaders across Europe and the rest of the world are at the forefront of the global energy transition. They recognise fossil gas not as a “transition” fuel but a major contributor to global heating and are leading the way in phasing out these planet-heating fuels. A continued, widespread reliance on fossil fuels, however, will lead us straight into climate disaster and will also prevent the EU from meeting its goal to become carbon neutral.
Recent events have shown how fossil fuel-dependent economies expose ordinary people to price shocks. Last year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exacerbated the wholesale energy price increase that followed the lifting of pandemic measures, driving record-breaking price spikes across Europe. The impacts of high prices were unequally distributed, with disadvantaged and vulnerable groups spending a larger share of their budget on energy than their higher-income peers.
Our continued reliance on dirty fuels also affects people’s health. Data from the European Environment Agency’s most recent air quality report finds that, in 2021, 97% of the EU’s urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter above what the World Health Organization deems healthy, mostly due to coal burning. In 2020, approximately 238,000 premature deaths were attributable to PM2.5 pollution in EU member states.
Fossil fuels must be phased out and quickly. That means we must resist attempts to lock in the future consumption of high-carbon and polluting energy, particularly “natural” gas. The fossil fuel industry is dialling up its greenwashing of gas as a “clean” or “bridge” fuel in the energy transition, but research by C40 and others makes clear that burning fossil gas, which is responsible for 20% of global CO2 emissions, will not help us to avert the worst of the climate crisis. Moreover, the air pollution from burning of fossil gas can contribute to almost as many deaths as coal power.
An emergency plan for European cities, put forward last year by C40 city mayors in partnership with labour unions and the IEA, highlights the urgent need to protect vulnerable people by scaling up investment in relief, renovation and renewables.
Many European cities are already demonstrating what ambitious action to meet these goals looks like. Amsterdam is investing €8.5 million to insulate the homes of its vulnerable residents. The city is working with Rotterdam and other local and national authorities to transition 1.5 million homes away from fossil gas by 2030. Warsaw is helping low-income households to replace coal boilers with clean, energy-efficient heat pumps.
We can reduce energy poverty and emissions by accelerating these interventions, protecting people from volatile fossil gas prices, and creating good, green jobs.
Achieving the transition requires rapid and large-scale investment from cities, national governments and the private sector. To limit global temperature rise to below 1.5°C, yearly global investment in renewables must more than quadruple, surpassing US$5 trillion.
In addition, a yearly investment of €200 billion in renovation is needed to transform 15% of the world’s building stock at 3% per year to achieve near-zero carbon emissions within five years and net zero by 2050. C40 research shows that an accelerated renovation programme can generate six times more jobs than similar investments in new fossil gas plants. Renovation can also help at least six million low-income households annually benefit from clean and affordable energy.
Beyond financing, one of the most powerful ways that governments – local, national or the EU – can attract investment in the green and just transition is to put the right policy measures in place, such as targets for energy efficiency and the adoption of renewables, as well as support for job training and reskilling towards good, green jobs.
Mayors and city leaders are taking urgently needed climate action, but only with increased support from – and collaboration with – national governments and regional blocs like the EU can they fully deliver on the needs of their constituents.
For Europe, the route out of the crisis requires transforming its energy system into one that is fit for the 21st century. It is long overdue.