Economist Impact has published a new report – 'Sustainable disruption: 12 decarbonising technologies for cities' – in which it says the featured technologies could radically reduce cities' carbon footprint and, as a result, emissions globally.

Cities currently consume more than two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO₂ emissions.   

In the research, commissioned by international law firm Osborne Clarke, Economist Impact has explored 26 decarbonisation technologies in total.  It has assessed their current use and level of investment in ten global cities, selected because they have relatively high greenhouse gas emissions (according to the UN) and all have pledged to reach net zero, most by 2050.  The report focuses on 12 of the 26 technologies.  

Some of the 12 already receive large amounts of investment, or are easy to scale, and all have exciting potential to help cities achieve carbon-emission targets.  Many will also create jobs, lower energy costs for residents and improve overall quality of life.

Summary conclusions

The report says that technologies which support efficiency across three key sectors of building & construction, city infrastructure and transport will have the greatest impact on urban decarbonisation.  These include high efficiency heat pumps, district heating/cooling systems, and smart grids/smart meters which all improve energy efficiency and score well in the impact category of the research. 

Nascent, ‘smart’ technologies (such as autonomous vehicles (AVs), Mobility as a Service and digital twins) could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but evidence on the efficacy of these can be patchy and more rigorous research is required.  Their impact would be greatly enhanced if fuelled by renewable energy sources.

Greater public and private investment, along with more regulatory, policy and financial incentives, are required across all technologies.  Among the ten cities studied, policies or funding were only available for an average of 16 out of the 26 technologies researched.
Lack of policy incentives, for example, is impacting the uptake of low-carbon cement and concrete alternatives.  Cement is the largest manufactured product on earth by mass and produces 8% of global CO₂ emissions.  Conversely, national/regional targets backed by public funds have played a vital role in scaling up smart meters and grids. 

Other technologies that have high impact and scalability potential but which receive low amounts of funding include waste robotics and vehicle to grid (V2G) technologies.  Public funds have helped start the roll-out of hydrogen vehicles, high efficiency heat pumps, and district heating/cooling systems.  But they require much more investment to scale in the cities explored.

High-tech and “smart” solutions tend to attract the most investment or largest number of investors.  These include AVs, unified communications and smart meters/grids.

The most important actions national and municipal governments can take in the building and construction sector, is to encourage  energy retrofits of existing buildings, and new and stronger standards in new builds. 

Martin Koehring, senior manager for sustainability, climate change and natural resources at Economist Impact: “More than half the global population already lives in urban areas, and cities are centres of climate innovation and solutions. The COP26 conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that investment in developing urban spaces, which are particularly prone to climate impacts, is crucial to climate adaptation and mitigation. Our study makes an important contribution to this conversation, by assessing the most impactful, scalable and investable decarbonisation technologies in urban contexts.”

Omar Al-Nuaimi, Osborne Clarke’s International CEO commented: "Governments and city authorities need to pull out all the stops to provide favourable regulatory and tax frameworks – and, where possible, financial support – for businesses who are willing to implement or invest in these important technologies."

James Watson, Osborne Clarke's international head of decarbonisation commented: "Written against the background of COP26, this report acknowledges that there is no silver bullet for climate change in cities.  Instead, there is an arsenal of technologies that can be deployed to drive forward the decarbonisation imperative.  Cities, by their nature, are equipped with the concentration of activity, finance and people needed to drive that effort.  But the partnerships and collaboration needed to deliver these changes can be complex to secure, requiring the alignment of diverse interests and priorities. New relationships will need to be established across sectors."

Claire Bouchenard, IT, IP and data partner at Osborne Clarke in France, commented: "Many of the featured technologies are underpinned by connectivity, data flows and software systems.  Tech procurement contracts can be a less obvious corollary of a net zero strategy.  Digital regulation is increasing in scope and volume, so legal and compliance risk from digitalisation may require attention, as will cybersecurity of the business or a digitalised supply chain.  Of course, with change comes extraordinary opportunity. The global investment community is already focusing on green tech and climate tech. Intellectual property frameworks will continue to protect investment in innovation and help to secure the revenue streams that will power these technologies yet further."

Alexander Dlouhy, head of decarbonisation at Osborne Clarke in Germany: "A clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which the Human Rights Council has only recently explicitly recognised as a human right, requires significant efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve net zero. A growing legal framework sets standards, for example, for sustainable construction, carbon pricing, tramlines for a circular economy. More and more companies will be required to report on their impact on ESG issues or voluntarily commit to do so. Regulations such as the EU Regulation on sustainability-related disclosures in the Financial Services Sector and the EU Taxonomy Regulation aim to steer investments towards sustainable projects and companies. Customers and employees want to know and even demand that the company they deal with or work for follows a sustainable business model and conducts its business in a sustainable manner."

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