Habitat III forum calls for city-level targets on sustainable energy

The New Urban Agenda can “drive implementation of the Paris climate agreement”, one official said as the UAE hosted a thematic meeting on energy.

A solar array in the United Arab Emirates, which has been pushing a focus on sustainable energy in the Habitat III process. (Momen Khaiti/Shutterstock)

ABU DHABI — Even as global oil prices continue to fall, this past week saw a spirited debate on the future of sustainable energy hosted by the United Arab Emirates, which founded most of its fortunes on “black gold”. The event focused in particular on the role that cities can play in strengthening and expanding the use of sustainable-energy solutions.

This was an official meeting of the Habitat III process, one of around a dozen such thematic and regional events aimed at gathering input for the 20-year urbanization summit that will take place later this year. As with all other such meetings, the Abu Dhabi event will result in a formal declaration offering recommendations for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the global strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

Although the UAE has based most of its economy on fossil fuels, it is today a member of the Habitat III Bureau, the small collection of national governments shepherding the Habitat III process. In this, the UAE has been able to play a key role in promoting sustainable energy as one of the main topics of the New Urban Agenda, which it also sees as key to the success of the global climate accord recently struck in Paris.

“We see Habitat III as a vehicle to drive implementation of the Paris climate agreement,” said Thani Al Zeyoudi, director of energy and climate change at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the country’s permanent representative to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which co-sponsored the thematic meeting.

[See: Cities increasingly looking to ‘district’ approaches to energy use]

In a country that had over 300 percent population growth in the past 15 years, strong action in favour of sustainable energy is seen as fundamental to promoting economic growth and quality of life. According to Al Zeyoudi, mandatory energy-performance codes for buildings and smart metering created new markets for products and services while lowering the cost of business in the UAE.

Another innovative initiative is the Masdar City project, which established new forms of collaboration between the government and the private sector. With a total commitment of USD 15 billion by the Abu Dhabi government, this hub of innovation and sustainability is being seen as a free zone for investments from local and international business to test innovative urban solutions for energy and environmental sustainability.

These are concrete signs that the UAE is not only at the forefront of innovation but is also already putting in practice most of the recommendations of the Abu Dhabi declaration — with positive effects, officials say, on both the reduction of emissions and economic growth.

[See: New alliance seeks to tap major climate potential of building sector]

“Sustainable energy pays for itself now,” Al Zeyoudi said. “It is no longer just about environmental impacts — there is a clear financial case. Many people hear ‘renewable’ and still think ‘expensive’. This is out of date, and Habitat III can be a megaphone for the development of opportunity in cities.”

Links to SDGs, COP 22

The Abu Dhabi talks took place as oil prices are at their lowest point in years. Longstanding attempts to convince developing countries to invest in sustainable and renewable sources of energy can easily be wiped out when carbon-based energy appears to be the cheapest option in the short and medium terms.

“Sustainable energy pays for itself now … Many people hear ‘renewable’ and still think ‘expensive’. This is out of date, and Habitat III can be a megaphone for the development of opportunity in cities.”

Thani Al Zeyoud
Foreign Ministry, United Arab Emirates

Still, the Abu Dhabi declaration on sustainable energy, a provisional version of which was presented to the thematic meeting on 20 January, represents a step forward in the global debate on the role of cities in the global effort toward reducing emissions.

The document, a finalized version of which will be available soon, aims to function as a link between the Habitat III debate as well as two other global processes: the U. N. climate talks that finished up in Paris in December, and the new Sustainable Development Goals agreed to in New York in September. The latter, which offers a landmark new global development framework for the next decade and a half, includes not only a goal specifically on cities but also a first-ever focus on sustainable energy.

“Habitat III will be very important to make us focus on the tools which will make Paris Agreement a reality,” said Hakima El Haite, environment minister for Morocco, the country that will host the next major global climate summit — known as COP 22 — at the end of this year.

Following a notably strong presence by cities at the Paris climate talks, today it is increasingly widely understood that urban areas can be decisive in implementing measures to meet the ambitious objectives included in the Paris Agreement.

[See all of Citiscope’s coverage of cities at the Paris talks]

Still, only general objectives are mentioned in the official documents that have been approved to date. Further, there is no reference to the economic effects that a swift to decarbonization process could have on citizens.

The drafters of the Abu Dhabi declaration want to fill this gap by highlighting how sustainable energy can effectively become one of the main pillars of the New Urban Agenda. The declaration includes principles, actions and policy recommendations based on some of the strongest experiences around sustainable energy at the local level throughout the world.

These experience include, for instance, the Covenant of Mayors in Europe, where local authorities committed voluntarily to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions through integrated action plans. Other cities are overseeing major transitions to more-efficient outdoor LED lighting, such as in Los Angeles and Chicago, or toward “zero-waste” strategy in small centres such as Kamikatsu in Japan and Capannori in Italy.

[See: COP 21 must encourage climate funding to reach the local level]

These are some of the models that can now serve as examples to cities at the global level. The declaration commits not only to include these in the New Urban Agenda but also to spread them globally, paying particular attention to vulnerable communities and Least Developed Countries — “where citizens disproportionately lack access to quality energy services”, the draft states.

Cities’ dual role

The declaration offers three main recommendations. First, establish city-level targets around renewable energy and energy efficiency. Second, enact mandatory minimum standards of energy performance for buildings. And third, promote transport models that are not based on fossil fuels. The document also calls for a focus on new policies and public funding that can reduce risks to private investments in urban sustainability.

The declaration also notes the significant obstacles to planning and implementing effective energy-sustainability measures at the urban level, particularly around reducing market barriers and still-significant financing gaps. This was a set of issues issue that made up much of the focus of the discussions and debates at the Abu Dhabi thematic meeting, which gathered public-sector decision-makers as well as global private actors in fields from energy efficiency to sustainable transportation.

The Abu Dhabi talks placed particular emphasis on driving the focus from national governments to local governments as the key actors in selecting and creating sustainable-energy solutions. Integrated strategies, such as those carried out by cities such as Sydney and Vancouver, are some of the examples mentioned of offering effective transformations toward urban sustainability. The declaration notes that cities are “well-positioned to encourage, enable, measure and regulate sustainable energy”.

[See: Habitat III can galvanize city-business collaboration on sustainable urban infrastructure]

Cities have a dual role in this process, after all, as both incubators of innovation in sustainable energy as well as direct operators in the production and distribution of energy.

“A certain number of countries, such as Germany, are considering the possibility of producing energy directly at the local level,” said Joan Clos, the secretary general of the Habitat III conference. He recalled how the direct involvement of cities and municipalities in the production of energy is a tradition in many European countries, particularly in Scandinavia. In the run-up to Habitat III, he suggested, this can offer an important model to promote decarbonization from the urban level up.

Greg Scruggs contributed to this report.

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Simone d'Antonio

Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.