Cities are a combination of things we see – buildings, transport infrastructure, parks and public spaces – and things we experience, such as culture and community. Home to more than half (and growing) of the global population, they are at the forefront of both causing and mitigating climate change impacts.

Cities are big energy consumers, accounting for nearly 80 per cent of the world’s energy consumption and 70 per cent of emissions. Cities are also at the frontline of climate change impacts. This means that the places where most of us live play a major role in worsening climate change. Acting on climate change in urban areas  can limit climate change effects while achieving a wide range of societal benefits.

As the world navigates a pandemic, extreme weather events are becoming more severe and frequent. The most authoritative international organisations on climate science and policy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency, have rung the climate alarm – but also sent a more hopeful message. We can still limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and avoid the worst effects of climate change. 

To do so, the world needs to reach net zero by 2050. That means economically-developed countries like Australia, and the rest of the OECD, need to get there much faster – by 2035 at the latest.

Nearly 90 per cent of Australians live in cities and towns. Urban Australia is mainly located in coastal areas that will be particularly vulnerable to impacts of climate change. Over the coming decades as sea levels rise, intensifying storms and coastal inundations are expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to coastal infrastructure, properties and businesses. To combat these effects, resilience in urban areas and coastal communities needs to increase. 

The biggest and most effective way to limit damage is to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. And there is a big opportunity to reduce emissions from urban environments. 

Most emissions in cities are generated by energy use in buildings and transport – which each make about 20 per cent of Australia’s emissions. Infrastructure assets influence up to 70 per cent of Australia’s emissions. Urban planning also plays a role in driving emissions, currently favoring rapid development of energy and carbon-intensive buildings in place of fields, forest or farmland – often creating residential communities that are dependent on cars for transport. 

Tackling climate change in the urban environment is about building better livelihoods. It’s about ensuring you can be comfortable at home during winter in Melbourne or summer in Cairns, and reducing energy bills. It’s about replacing commutes with family time. It’s about millions of jobs being created for Australians. And it’s about better health.

The good news is, all of this is achievable. The International Energy Agency has found that the technology needed to achieve the necessary deep cuts in emissions – by 2030 – already exist. And the policies that can drive their deployment are already proven. This is particularly true for buildings and passenger transport. 

Technologies to fully decarbonise buildings are available, mature and in most cases, very cost effective. They can be as simple as building residences with a north-facing aspect, or installing ceiling fans. Along with technology, we also need government programs, financial incentives and leadership from the construction industry. More than 50 percent of the buildings expected to be standing in 2050 will be built in the next three decades. As current Australian building requirements do not align with net zero-aligned energy standards, that means every year, hundreds of thousands of buildings are constructed which are incompatible with a net-zero future – and unfit for a warming climate. 

What about our  existing buildings, which make up 99 per cent of the current building stock? These need to undergo significant upgrades to align to net-zero standards. To be on track for a 1.5 degree pathway, Australia must retrofit more than 1 million homes every year to align with higher energy performance standards, including switching to clean energy. Currently the nation is falling way behind on this timeline. 

The other big area for transformation is transport. Electric vehicles have a critical role to play in reducing emissions from road transport – currently responsible for as much as 60 per cent of transport emissions. But they are certainly not a silver bullet. New research suggests that active modes of transport such as walking and cycling, as well as public transport, provide the greatest range of benefits to society. They are affordable, healthy and resource efficient. Vehicle sharing, ride-hailing, mobility as a service (including ridesharing options like uber) and telework (working from home) are more costly and resource intensive, but still provide numerous benefits such as helping to address vehicle traffic and sprawl. Private electric and autonomous vehicles are also part of the solution, but again, are more expensive and resource intensive. 

Electric vehicles need to be more affordable if they are going to play a significant role in reducing emissions. To be on track for net zero, they need to make up three quarters of new car sales by 2030, and 100 per cent of new car sales by 2035 at the latest.

Active and public transport infrastructure will also need to significantly develop to unlock full decarbonisation of the transport sector, as well as benefiting broader health and liveability outcomes. Electric vehicles alone won’t get Australia out of the traffic jam.

There are significant, readily available opportunities in buildings and transport to reduce emissions from urban environments. Seizing these opportunities now will ensure communities are more resilient to climate change, and can reap a wide range of socio-economic and health benefits. To make this shift, emissions and health benefits need to be front and centre when it comes to decision-making on infrastructure and urban planning. 

Australia needs ambitious policy targets and legislation to provide a policy environment for decarbonisation to occur at the scale and pace needed for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. But regardless of legislation, the solutions are known. New buildings can incorporate measures to ensure the highest levels of efficiency, existing homes can be retrofitted and public and active transport can be supported to develop further. If Australia goes ‘all-in’, the nation can realise the best outcome for climate, health, lifestyle and jobs.

Find out more about our work on citiestransport and infrastructure.