Use Less. Use Clean. Switch Fuels. Applying the Decarbonization Framework for Cities


Why should cities embrace a climate and clean energy agenda? Cities use 70% of global energy and therefore have a huge opportunity and responsibility to reduce their energy use and their greenhouse gas emissions. Half of the global population and 80% of Americans live in cities.

Cities are also on the front lines responding to climate impacts, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather connected to changing global temperatures. Mayors and city councilmembers have the closest connections to the people who vote for them, particularly in small and mid-sized communities where elected officials are closely engaged with their constituents.

In the run-up to and during the Paris Agreement talks in December 2015, cities played a significant role in demanding action and they continue to drive climate action at the local level all over the world. With a U.S. Congress and White House actively promoting a fossil fuel agenda, the ante has been raised considerably now and cities are more important than ever in addressing climate change

What Can Cities Do to Mitigate Emissions?

To reduce carbon emissions, cities adopt a decarbonization framework: use less energy, use clean energy, and switch as many energy uses as possible from dirty energy to clean energy, or use less; use clean; and fuel-switch.

Energy Efficiency

The first key decarbonization strategy is to use less energy. Decreasing the amount of energy required means not having to develop more energy resources, especially fossil-fuels like natural gas, while we wait for the cost of energy storage to drop to enable intermittent renewable energy as a reliable resource on the electric grid.

Policies for building performance scores, which are like miles per gallon stickers for buildings, and that require new buildings to use the same amount of energy that they produce, as well as building codes that incentivize deep energy efficiency are all critically important tools for decreasing energy use in buildings.

The Puget Sound region is a pioneer in promoting policies that encourage urban density and concentrating growth serviced by public transit, safe walkways, and bike lanes, as well as affordable housing—all of which are critical climate solutions that set the framework for low-carbon communities. The Bullitt Center, the greenest commercial building in the world, and the City of Issaquah, WA's Z Home, the nation's first zero net energy town house, are examples of the region's innovation in deeply energy efficient buildings.

Cleaning the Grid

The second key decarbonization strategy is to achieve the cleanest possible electric grid, by removing all coal and natural gas from the power supply and replacing it with either energy efficiency or renewable energy.

Urban areas may be able to accelerate cleaning their grids, especially where they control their electricity either because the city owns it (Seattle City Light and Tacoma Public Utilities are examples in the Northwest) or they are permitted to purchase their own power through Community Choice Aggregation, they may be able to accelerate cleaning their grids.

Communities that do not have this control must work with their utilities and public service commissions to clean their power supply.

A clean grid is a foundational decarbonization step. Heating and cooling buildings with clean electricity is a critical piece of the decarbonization puzzle, as is replacing gasoline cars with cleanly powered electric vehicles as we will see next. The Northwest, with its abundant clean hydropower, should lead the nation in the transition to 100% clean electricity.

Getting off Oil

The transportation sector is the hardest to decarbonize, but for passenger vehicle and light-duty trucks we have the solution, and it is linked to the clean grid: transportation electrification.

Transportation solutions are also linked to land use policies. Passing policies that encourage urban density set the framework for low-carbon communities. It turns out that very dense cities where people rely on mass transit, walking, and cycling as opposed to cars have much lower carbon emissions per capita.

Urban Clean Energy Approach

So how can cities use less, use clean, and fuel-switch? By setting ambitious carbon emission reduction goals; calculating their emissions so they know where to focus their reduction efforts; and determining strategies for emission reduction in buildings, transportation, and energy supply that are customized to their particular energy systems.

Here is the formula for action:

  • Set aggressive carbon reduction targets over 15-30 year period  
  • Map a community's sources and uses of energy  
  • Determine how much reduction is necessary in the coming decades  
  • Analyze the reduction potential of existing policies to achieve reduction targets and  determine how much reduction remains to be addressed by additional strategies  
  • Assess tactics for the built environment, transportation, and energy supply customized to each jurisdiction and in line with what each community will sign up for  
  • Create a climate action plan that complements local comprehensive plans

Additional Resources

For further information regarding this subject, see the Clean Energy Transition Institute's presentations on City-Led Clean Energy Innovation, Urban Clean Energy Efforts, and City-Led Climate Action. Also see the City Climate Solutions References list.

Part One of a four-part series examining the role local jurisdictions can play in reducing carbon emissions:

Eileen V. Quigley

Founder & Executive Director
Eileen V. Quigley is Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute. Eileen spent seven years at Climate Solutions identifying the transition pathways off oil and coal to a low-carbon future in Washington and Oregon. She built and led the New Energy Cities program, which partnered with 22 Northwest cities and counties to reduce carbon emissions. As Director of Strategic Innovations, she oversaw New Energy Cities, as well as Sustainable Advanced Fuels.
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