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Climate Action Q4 2023

Three things we need to do for low-carbon cities

Tadashi Matsumoto

Head of Sustainable Urban Development Unit, OECD

Cities account for over 70% of global carbon emissions. How can they step up their efforts to get us back on track to meet our climate goals?


More than 13,000 cities have made political commitments to cut emissions. Many have had some success: emissions per capita fell by more than 20% in metropolitan regions in OECD Europe, North America and Oceania over the last 20 years.  

Yet, even in Europe, where per capita metropolitan emissions are the lowest, they will need to fall by more than a third by 2030 to reach net zero by 2050. The scale of the challenge requires new thinking and systems — ones that embed the climate priority across urban policies and programmes. There are three areas where cities can start.  

Transforming urban planning and design 

New digital models (including urban twins) can help optimise urban design to minimise energy consumption and carbon emissions. Smarter urban design is not just about optimising the structure of individual buildings but proximity to urban services to minimise travel — and deploying new technology such as district heating. For example, in Vancouver, the Regional Growth Strategy stimulates growth in transit corridors and promotes working and playing close to home, which can reduce vehicle kilometres travelled. 

Smarter urban design is not just about optimising
the structure of individual buildings but proximity
to urban services to minimise travel.

Promoting natural space  

This can transform cities from ‘concrete jungles’ to more attractive and liveable spaces, with reduced cooling needs and carbon sequestration potential. More than half of OECD cities have undergone deforestation during the last two decades, which highlights the need for urgent action. Barcelona has set a goal to expand its green areas by 1.6 km2 by 2030. Cities such as Basel, Seoul and Toronto use regulation and tax incentives to promote green roofs. 

Transitioning from a linear to circular economy 

This can create new business opportunities and help reach carbon neutrality, through effective materials management policies, prevention of material consumption, eco-design and reuse (OECD, 2019). The business sector plays a key role in advancing a circular economy. In Lisbon, the Lisbon Commitment to a circular economy has been endorsed by more than 200 organisations. 

Together, these actions will pave the way to greener, cleaner cities — and maybe get us back on track in tackling the climate crisis. 

To learn more about OECD work on climate action in regions and cities: https://www.oecd.org/cfe/cities/tacar.htm

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