Sustainable development of cities amid the energy transition

#CriticalThinking

Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz
Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz

Mayor of Warsaw

We are living in the era of cities. Key international documents, such as the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the EU Urban Agenda, acknowledge cities’ growing role in facilitating sustainable global development. This is not surprising: in 1950, just 30% of the world’s population lived in cities, but today 55% do. By 2050, that will reach 66%, meaning 6 billion people will live in urban agglomerations.

This change brings risks but also an opportunity to improve global welfare by shaping cities in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. These ideas appear under different names, such as green cities, smart cities and sustainable cities. However, their meaning is largely the same. They all assume a holistic approach to cities based on the commitments of decision makers; improvements of an organizational and institutional nature; capacity building; and municipal planning in cooperation with citizens and other stakeholders. They also imply a gradual transformation towards cities that are efficient, environmentally friendly and open to their citizens – so they might use innovative pilot projects and initiatives to test possible large-scale solutions.

Human-induced climate change interferes with all the other goals of sustainable global development: without climate protection development in other fields will be slowed. The 2016 Paris Agreement at the COP21 conference, as well as other agreements over the past two years, have made important commitments to tackle climate change. The world’s biggest economies have also made joint efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission. Nevertheless, crucial issues still need to be addressed – especially after the recent, unfortunate policy change by the US administration. These topics include adaptation to climate change, the transfer of innovative and energy-efficient technologies and a comprehensive financing of actions, which are of particular importance to developing countries. Cities and municipalities are important because of their increased engagement in the fight against climate change and the acknowledgement of their role by national governments.

The opportunity for direct and organized influence by cities on both EU and national policies, for example on energy, is invaluable

Key elements include changes in consumers’ energy behaviour, a shift towards electric mobility and an efficient transition of energy-producing sectors. The energy transition is also important because of its implications for energy access and security. Goal 7 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals says: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

In the 2016 Pact of Amsterdam, the European Union emphasized challenges at the level of local governments and also their partners – as the scope of the issues reaches beyond the borders of municipalities. Consequently, the EU Urban Agenda provides for the establishment of partnerships in 12 fields, one of which is the Energy Transition Partnership. It is coordinated by a team from Gdańsk in Poland, London in England and Roeselare in Belgium. Warsaw is one of the partners.

The opportunity for direct and organized influence by cities on both EU and national policies, for example on energy, is invaluable. Warsaw is a dedicated advocate of such possibilities. We joined the Energy Transition Partnership after cooperation with the network EUROCITIES. However, the current Polish government is reluctant to acknowledge the essential role of municipalities.

Energy transformation is relevant for cities because they consume 80% of Europe’s energy and generate 70% of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The energy transition requires a long-term structural change in energy systems. Only then will it be possible to create a more-integrated and smarter energy system to balance supply and demand at the EU, national and urban levels. The proposed approach focuses on minimizing energy demand and  simultaneously diversifying energy sources by increasing the use of renewables, waste heat and power-to-gas solutions. Cost-effective combinations of energy storage should also be maximized and smart-grid solutions should be deployed to decentralize the energy system.

Warsaw is already a role model for energy transition in district heating

Over the last 10 years, Warsaw has realized a number of large, sustainable projects, and more are planned for the near future. They include the modernization and extension of the Czajka treatment plant, which can treat all the wastewater released to the Vistula River and provide a source of clean energy from the incineration of biogas originating from sludge fermentation.

In addition, public transport is being electrified. A second metro line is being constructed. New tramways are being built, and more than 200 trams equipped with regenerative brakes are being bought. The municipal bus operator will be in possession of 160 electric buses by 2020. The successful city bike system, Veturilo, has introduced electric bikes, while a car-sharing system will be launched in the near future and later be supplemented with electric vehicles.

The city and its partners are also differentiating the energy mix and improving energy efficiency. A massive biomass block was launched recently in the Warsaw heat and power plants system, and it will be supplemented before 2020 with a block that combusts natural gas. On a smaller scale, the city is supporting dispersed, renewable energy installations by establishing these as standard in new municipal buildings. The city is also investing in smart grid solutions and smart metering, both for municipal buildings and private households.

Warsaw is already a role model for energy transition in district heating: its system, the largest in the EU, satisfies the needs of 80% of residents. The municipal solid waste incineration plant will soon provide the system with an additional source of renewable electricity and heat. Finally, the city is continually promoting energy efficiency and climate awareness among citizens, companies and municipal staff.

To become more sustainable and energy-efficient, cities need increasing external support. More legal competences should be transferred to local governments, which should receive greater financial support, including EU funds. The city level is optimal for planning, implementing and financing urban innovations. European cities, including Warsaw, are willing to cooperate with both European and national administrations. Only through such cooperation will it be possible to achieve the EU climate and energy goals and successfully deliver the energy transition.


This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘Cities – the new policy shapers in the energy transition’, in which international experts, policy-makers and entrepreneurs report from cities and regions all around the globe acknowledging cities’ evolving and prominent role within the energy transition. Cities are teaming up, creating coalitions and sharing knowledge on the most advanced and innovative solutions to tackle climate-related risks.

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