Towards the energy transition

Il·lustració © Enrique Flores

Cities occupy only 3% of the Earth’s surface. Notwithstanding this fact, they account for between 60% and 80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions. It is clear that a change must be brought about in the social and economic system, a change in which energy efficiency and renewable energies must be the mainstays of a cleaner and more sustainable model.

Climate change is a reality, and its effects are being felt in our day-to-day lives and more than ever before. For instance, the weather during the first fortnight of November this year bore a greater semblance to the days of spring than those of late autumn. Climate change mitigation policies have been in place for many years, but a great deal of work remains to be done to achieve the goal established by the Paris Agreement, which focuses on limiting the global temperature increase to below 2°C. And to do so, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Several studies indicate that, with the current rate of growth of emissions, by 2050 the planet’s average temperature will have risen by 3°C and the sea level will have risen between 30 and 60 centimetres. In the face of such severe consequences, decisive action must be taken to turn the situation around. In fact, these studies not only point out that we need to avoid greenhouse gas emissions, but we need to find ways to absorb the ones we have. Cities play a paramount role in this regard, with the planning and creation of spaces that act as lungs to absorb these emissions.

In this race, the year 2020 has marked a turning point. Both Barcelona City Council and the Generalitat Government of Catalonia have declared a climate emergency. The aim of both declarations is to highlight the need to fight for climate change mitigation. Earlier this year, we witnessed the adverse effects caused by climate change. In four days, Storm Gloria produced an entire year’s amount of rainfall, resulting in major damage to various infrastructure and, most serious of all, human casualties. According to meteorologists, the climate in Catalonia will be increasingly extreme and will combine long periods of drought with more intense rainy seasons. There will also be a rise in temperatures, characterised by summers with heat waves and increasingly less cold winters.

Over this year of uncertainty, the major health crisis of the last fifty years began in mid-March, triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced us to change our everyday habits, both in our personal and professional lives. The pandemic has made us rethink, among other things, the way we get from home to work or what our workplaces should be like and, above all, the spaces where we live.

On 25 September 2015, world leaders adopted the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set out in seventeen points, with the aim of eradicating poverty, protecting the planet and improving the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. All the goals have specific targets that must be met in the coming years. Needless to say, to accomplish these goals, everyone must play their part: governments, the private sector, the public sector and citizens.

According to the United Nations website, half of humanity, approximately 3.5 billion people, live in cities today, and this figure is expected to increase to 5 billion by 2030. Cities occupy only 3% of the Earth’s land, but account for between 60% and 80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions. SDG 11 talks about making cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

The SDGs also make reference to climate change mitigation in cities and the production and use of energy as one of the main causes of this problem. Three quarters of the greenhouse gas emissions that occur in Catalonia stem from the processes of energy generation and use, both in power plants and in our application thereof. Cities, as large energy consumers, are therefore key to climate change mitigation and can take action in a number of areas to tackle it: mobility, construction, industry and their own infrastructure.

Clean energy as a prospect

We need to change our energy model to a clean, carbon-neutral model based on energy efficiency and renewable energies. However, this change must be accompanied by a change in social and economic model, whose achievement calls for innovation in both technology and business models. In 2016, the European Commission presented the “Clean Energy for All Europeans” package, which defines a stable legislative framework needed to tackle the energy transition. This package includes new directives on renewable energy, energy efficiency in buildings, the electricity market and governance rules of the Energy Union, among others.

The aim of this regulatory framework is, first and foremost, to move towards a new model based on clean energy and a safer, more competitive and sustainable energy system that helps mitigate climate change. Secondly, this legislation puts citizens at its centre to facilitate their active participation in the transition towards clean energy and their own decision-making as regards their energy use. Greater control and better access for consumers will result in a better quality of life and a reduction in energy costs. Thirdly, this legislative package reiterates that the cheapest and cleanest source of energy is the energy that does not need to be produced, and therefore highlights another aspect as important as energy efficiency. Saving energy is the easiest way to advance towards energy independence. Finally, the European directives stemming from the package define new actors in the energy sector, such as local energy communities and electricity demand aggregators, which will be key to changing cities’ energy model.

Different European countries have set targets related to the guidelines of the “Clean Energy for All Europeans” package. Following the National Agreement for the Energy Transition, passed in 2017, and the subsequent Law 16/2017 on Climate Change, passed the same year, Catalonia has joined the European goal to achieve the decarbonisation of our energy system by 2050, and the transformation of Catalonia’s energy model into one based 100% on renewable energy. 

The role of cities and citizens

And what is the role of cities in all this? Cities play a key role in the road towards clean and sustainable energy on account of their potential for replication and the possibility of municipalities and/or cities taking concerted action. Some of the challenges that cities must come up against to continue striving to reverse climate change are outlined below.

We need to have a conscious and empowered citizenry. The health crisis over COVID-19 has made the population more aware of their living conditions, their use of energy and how much it costs. However, we must continue to work to raise awareness among more citizens, through pilot projects that allow us to learn and to draw good practices and adopt them as a model.

Mobility is another key pillar in the energy transition process. Cities must have a model of sustainable mobility both in the urban and interurban area. In this regard, they can foster projects aimed at rethinking the public transport system, both in terms of frequencies and the type of vehicle used; expanding the structure of electric vehicle charging points, both in public and private spaces; allocating spaces for the safe parking of bicycles, scooters, etc.; devising new business models based on the occasional use of vehicles as needed, instead of buying one; making commutes to work more sustainable; and giving impetus to companies with more sustainable vehicle fleets.

As regards sustainable construction, two challenges are identified: the construction of new buildings and the rehabilitation of old ones. Sustainability must be included in new buildings, which must be designed and constructed so that they represent almost zero energy consumption, as set out in the regulations. This calls for the implementation of passive and active measures that are technically and economically viable and that help us to reduce energy demand, to increase the efficiency of facilities, to have a good energy management system and energy production systems (thermal and electrical) using renewable energy for self-generation and self-consumption.

However, the overriding challenge, especially in cities that, like Barcelona, ​​have buildings that were constructed before the 1960s, is the rehabilitation of existing buildings. Many old buildings need to be restored and require the allocation of the necessary financial resources. And we need to find new business models that make this rehabilitation viable. One point to keep in mind is the roofs of these buildings, where the installation of solar panels for photovoltaic self-consumption can be integrated into the building itself, either individually or collectively. One solution – which is already being developed in some cities in Catalonia – is to give impetus to new management models such as local energy communities, which facilitate the construction of a photovoltaic solar installation for shared self-consumption and the execution of rehabilitation measures through the savings generated.

Cities with an industrial network must harness the possibilities offered by industrial estates. In these spaces, the synergy between different industries can be sought to boost the circular economy, energy efficiency and renewable energy generation. In the field of energy, and according to the size and type of industry, three opportunities are identified: the improvement of energy management; the improvement of the energy efficiency of buildings and production processes; and the implementation of photovoltaic solar energy production installations on roofs or land for individual or shared self-consumption.

Energy change versus climate change

Cities provide many opportunities and challenges to bring the energy transition to fruition and to help mitigate climate change. The possibilities are endless; all that is needed are the creation of synergies between citizens, private companies, public institutions and government, the exploitation of the available technical, economic and social resources, and the continuation of work on research and innovation in fields that are not yet sufficiently developed.

For a year now, I have chaired the Energy Efficiency Cluster of Catalonia (CEEC), a non-profit business association, currently made up of more than 170 members, both public and private, where we cover the energy sector’s value chain. At CEEC it is very clear to us that we are at a crucial point in the energy sector and that we must continue to take action in the city to achieve the established goals.

For the cluster and the organisations it brings together, the energy transition is a double opportunity. On the one hand, it will allow the sector to be redesigned around new energy challenges: creating new technologies, new equipment and innovative services in the realm of renewable energies, energy efficiency and the digitalisation of energy. On the other hand, it is a market opportunity to make the necessary investments to develop this new energy model (a major effort in energy efficiency and the mass deployment of renewable energy).

Climate change is a reality and it is the responsibility of one and all to stop it. If we want the world to be different, we all need to start analysing our day-to-day habits and start seeing which ones we can change, because we need a change in energy culture. As Mahatma Gandhi puts it: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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