Cost-friendly solutions and shared lessons drive sustainable cities forum

An aerial view of New York City. Photo by: Kārlis Dambrāns / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — More innovative sources of financing are needed as cities look to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change threats, city officials and business leaders said during the third annual Financing Sustainable Cities Forum on Tuesday.

While public climate financing is on the rise, the estimated needs are expected to continue to increase before 2050. By then, developing countries could require between $140 to $300 billion a year to adapt to climate change.

The stakes are particularly high for cities, 90 percent of which occupy coastal areas and 70 percent of which are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Using existing city resources could be key for these cities, panelists shared at the New York forum, co-hosted by the C40 cities leadership group, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, and the Citi Foundation.

Citi announced a new $5 million grant that will support the Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative, a joint venture between C40 and WRI that it has funded since 2016.

Plans are underway in New York to zoom in on the city’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions: the city’s 1 million buildings and the heat and hot water they consume. In September, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced new energy mandates for buildings bigger than 25,000 square feet. Buildings will face financial penalties if they do not update their boilers, install more energy efficient windows, or take other steps to reach fossil fuel targets within the next 11 to 16 years.

“It’s something we know can change the game,” Mark Chambers, director of New York’s office of sustainability, told Devex. He added that buildings could receive low-interest, long-term loans, meaning they don’t necessarily have to provide the capital for the infrastructure changes upfront.

“We need to make sure building owners have a catalyst, that they understand what they need to do, and we hold them accountable,” he continued.

New York is one of the more than 7,500 cities globally that have signed onto the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a commitment to reduce emissions, improve climate change resilience, and meet the targets of the Paris climate change agreement. New Orleans has also joined the alliance.

Collaboration and conversations with cities across the world has evolved over the past few years, explained Ryan Mast, the director of the mayor’s office of resilience and sustainability in New Orleans.

“It’s gone from first how to assist, to how do we collaborate as you rebuild and recover and what are the lessons learned?” he said.  

New Orleans’ topographical environment and other factors are unique, but it is working to adopt the practice of living with water rather than simply working to keep it out — which is already a common philosophy in the Netherlands. The average elevation of New Orleans is 1 to 2 feet below sea level, and the city continues to face issues of subsidence, or sinking.

“We try to get smarter about how we live with the conditions and water we have so we can supplement the [existing] infrastructure with green infrastructure,” Mast said. “We have a lot to learn, but also a lot to share, and when we come to events like this one, what is so comforting is other cities are facing the same problems.”

New Orleans is currently considering how it can invest in the construction of “blue green corridors,” which would always retain a certain level of standing water. The corridors’ water level could be drained in the case of a strong storm or quick downpour of rain, pushing the corridors to then fill back up naturally. This support system could reduce the pressure placed on traditional stormwater systems.

The forum also highlighted some progress on the cost-efficiency of renewable projects. Some electric busses, for example, are already cheaper to run than conventional busses, according to “Electric Buses in Cities: Driving Towards Cleaner Air,” a new report from the Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. While electric busses still sometimes have prohibitive upfront costs, battery leasing and bus sharing could make them a more practical solution for cities, the report found.

Already, a typical bus with a rechargeable battery has a lower total cost of ownership than a diesel bus. Within the next 12 years, the battery pack in the average electric bus should account for 8 percent of the bus’ total price — down from 26 percent in 2016. Increasing demand for electric buses could also help make them affordable more quickly.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.