1. Context and definition of the concept

  • About 55% of the world population lives in cities, consuming 64% of primary energy and generating 70% of CO2 emissions. This population is very much exposed to local pollution, as it is in cities that the highest concentration of pollutants is produced.
  • Almost 7 million people meet early deaths every year because of air pollution worldwide: over 500,000 in Europe and over 33,000 in Spain.

  • The worst thing is that current forecasts show that the situation will not improve in future despite the technological advances in clean energies and efficiency, for the following reasons:
    • The number of people living in cities will go on rising (the figure is estimated to reach 70% of the population by 2060)1), and this means that more people will be exposed to high levels of pollutant concentration. The increase in the average age will also mean that the population will be more sensitive to local pollutants.
    • Cities will be increasingly bigger, with more economic activity and higher energy consumption.
    • There will be more vehicles and more pollution produced in cities.
    • Inertia in some urban elements is very high: vehicles are upgraded at average 10+ year intervals, buildings last for several decades and urban models that have already been established are very hard to change.


2. Energy, air quality and climate change

  • Climate change and air pollution have the same basic origin: energy consumption from fossil fuels.
  • There is significant overlap in combating both of these issues: energy efficiency, electrification and clean energy.
  • However, some elements can promote one while being detrimental to another. The best example are diesel vehicles: they have lower CO2 emissions but a lot more local pollutants, in particular NOx. For this reason, despite their higher energy efficiency, the future use of diesel vehicles is going to be limited in cities.
  • The same is true of biofuels and biomass.  Despite the possible effect of lower CO2  emissions (depending on the case), they produce a lot more local pollutants that are very bad for people’s health (PM2,5, NOx, etc.).
  • That is why it is important to ensure that energy policies are not designed with a focus on just one of these two goals on their own. Instead, they should be taken into account on a simultaneous basis. A lot of opportunities are generated (with a very low incremental cost, as may be seen in the following diagram) and a lot of problems are avoided (e.g. promoting diesel vehicles as was done in Europe brought about a major increase in local pollutant emissions).

3. Progress (existing initiatives)

  • Cities experience the problems at much closer range. Air pollution is something that affects people on a daily basis. We are all affected or we all know someone close to us that is affected by pollution.
  • The importance of energy consumption in urban areas and its high impact mean it is imperative that measures be implemented in this field.
  • Cities have a huge capacity to influence and impact on the behaviour of the general public and of the corporate sector. They are very effective, and very necessary, in complementing policies implemented on a nationwide basis.
  • The mayors of various cities are setting up joint action groups to combat local pollution and setting specific targets, such as the “Covenant of Mayors” at European level, or the “Global Covenant of Mayors” at global level.
  • Some of the various measures that cities have started to implement are as follows:
    • Cities like Paris [ref] and London (from 2020 onwards) are thinking of banning diesel vehicles and imposing restrictions on access to certain areas of the city (initiative also backed by Madrid).
    • With a view to improving the poor air quality, the Mayor of London wants to speed up measures to reduce emissions, restricting access to areas of the city where only electric vehicles, including taxis, would be allowed. The full plan includes measures like the following:
  • The mayors of cities like Paris are providing tax incentives and additional grants to state-owned firms to encourage them to take vehicles that produce more pollution off the streets and replace their fleet with electric vehicles (some authors are proposing similar measures for London).
  • A member of the German government has raised the issue of the need to ban the sale of traditional combustion vehicles from 2030 onwards. In Norway, this will be done from 2025 onwards.
  • Oslo is going even further than that. Its mobility plan includes the intention to ban the use of conventional combustion vehicles from 2019 onwards.
  • India is going to set stricter emissions standards despite the complaints received from vehicle manufacturers. On a global level, the trend is for each vehicle to be identified on the basis of its emissions level (this is already being done in Madrid and Paris ).

4. Challenges to be faced 

As we have seen, cities have a very important role to play in energy matters and their capacity for action is also very significant. The following graph shows that most of the efforts to bring down CO2 levels worldwide should be concentrated in urban areas.

  • New governance structures: New structures should be developed, setting energy targets at urban level. The relevant municipal energy policy measures should be developed in coordination with national targets and policies.
  • New transport models: The transport model should minimise the amount of time employed but also the amount of energy that is used. Backbone transport should be coordinated with the last mile. In this regard, public-private partnerships (public transport/ new business models) have an essential role to play.
  • Use of clean energies in building: Once the standards of efficiency, urban models, etc. have been defined, the energy consumed should not generate emissions containing CO2 or any other local pollutants. This means that non-emitting energies will become increasingly important. The goal should be for energy to be used without producing emissions.
  • Municipalities as hubs for innovation: All of these changes in the energy model require a significant amount of innovation, as well as new models for development and business. Municipalities should spearhead the creation of innovation hubs in order for this to be possible.
  • Education and awareness: The changes that are sorely needed will only come about if they are demanded by the general public. Therefore, education and awareness campaigns should be launched so that people can learn about the impacts, causes and solutions for air pollution, as well as the benefits to be gained from improving it.
  • Public-private partnerships that enable a fast, efficient and innovative change in the energy model should be supported.
  • New urban planning models: Lower energy consumption should be taken into account in new urban developments. For example: spread, building model, energy efficiency standards, coordination of residential areas and work areas, etc.