Feature: How far have we come in the global quest to make cities greener?

By Edwin Groenendaal, CEO of HARNESS Data Intelligence 

It’s been two years since Greta disrupted world leaders in Davos. But how far have we come in the global quest to make cities greener?

As we move into a heatwave summer the dust has now settled on this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF), after last year’s conference was deferred due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This year’s event was understandably dominated by discussions around the ongoing war in Ukraine. One of the lasting memories was the appearance of President Zelenskyy via video link at the conference as he called for more urgent global support for his country.

Rewind back to the previous Davos conference in 2020 and much of the talk was around Greta Thunberg, who appeared on two panels and led a protest outside the event with other young activists, criticising world and business leaders for ignoring calls to break away from fossil fuels. While many delegates spoke with passion about the importance of climate issues, actual action was harder to find. So how far have we actually come since Greta’s Davos cameo?

One of the key ongoing themes of the World Economic Forum is the focus on cities as main pollution drivers and look at various measures to decarbonise. The majority of the built environment that will be standing in 2050 (the EU timeframe to be carbon neutral) already exists today. These buildings account for approximately 28% of total global carbon emissions.

In an increasingly challenging and volatile world, the urgent need to decarbonize real estate remains a constant. There are no quick fixes that will suddenly transform today’s energy inefficient buildings into models of sustainable construction in the coming decades. It will take time, investment and expertise to retrofit the majority of buildings across urban areas. Yet given that more than 60% of carbon emissions within cities typically come from buildings, a concerted effort is needed sooner rather than later.

Recent research from JLL’s Decarbonising Cities and Real Estate report identified that the most successful cities to advance decarbonisation will be those that take a more holistic approach and balance regulation, incentives, innovation and accelerator programmes. The report also said partnerships with landlords, investors, developers and occupiers are key to success. Significant opportunity exists to achieve these city goals with improved consistency of standards, policies and reporting of building emissions.

In a study of 32 global urban centres, the research revealed that real estate’s contribution to emissions averages 60%, even higher in the world’s largest business centres – as much as 78% in London, 73% in Tokyo 70% in Paris and 66% in New York.

In an overarching theme, the study finds there is a significant gap between the policies enacted in cities, the impact of the real estate industry, and the science that indicates the need to reach peak emissions to limit global warming. The report stresses that in order to deliver a net-zero economy, city governments need to take real estate decarbonisation as seriously as other sustainability initiatives and find the right balance between ‘stick and carrot’ – regulation and incentivisation.

Several cities are highlighted for their innovative approaches to reducing emissions from buildings, including New York City with a raft of local laws that are among the most effective globally. It also points out: Singapore and Vancouver, which have set out imaginative approaches to greening their buildings; Paris and Amsterdam, which are taking a lead in considering embodied carbon; London and Los Angeles which are setting the pace on biodiversity; and Tokyo’s cap-and-trade programme which incentivises building owners to reduce emissions.

However, the main concern is that policy is lagging behind the science and this puts a greater onus on the private sector to take the lead in climate action. Waiting for regulation to filter in might not be enough, and those global centres who act now will have more resilient real estate assets and a greater competitive edge.