Decarbonizing cities is also good for the planet

Decarbonizing cities is also good for the planet

The fourth edition of the report on circular cities, which was prepared by Enel and the Enel Foundation in collaboration with Arup, assesses the impact of applying the principles of the circular economy to cities in terms of emissions, quality of life and resilience.


Around 250 years ago there were only three cities in the world with more than a million inhabitants: Tokyo, Beijing and London. Today there are more than 550: the pace of cities’ growth and their importance has skyrocketed. Fifteen years ago the urban population surpassed the rural population and now cities are responsible for more than 80% of the world’s GDP.

Cities produce around 70% of global carbon emissions. They are responsible for more than 60% of all resources used, producing 50% of the world’s waste. Forecasts predict that by 2050 around two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities, therefore, they are set to play a key role in tackling the effects of climate change. They can do so by systematically applying the principles of the circular economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) estimates, for example, that the transition to a circular economy in the production of materials such as cement and steel – based on the concept of reduce, reuse, recycle and recover – would contribute to a 45% reduction in greenhouse gases, contributing together with decarbonization to achieve the target of carbon neutrality in electricity production.

To evaluate the impact of adopting circular economy principles in cities – in terms of emissions, quality of life and resilience – Enel and Arup, a multinational provider of professional services with a deep knowledge of the urban environment, have (with the scientific support of the Enel Foundation) collaborated on a research project with the Bocconi University in Milan, the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotà, Colombia, and the University of Genoa focusing on four cities: Bogotá, Genoa, Glasgow and Milan, which have all embarked on journeys to accelerate the energy transition.

This research is the subject of the fourth edition of the position paper “Circular Cities - decarbonization and other benefits.” The complete results of the study, which concerns the three key urban sectors of mobility, the built environment and energy systems, were presented in conjunction with COP26 – the United Nations 2021 conference on climate change – in Glasgow, in order to provide a guide for municipal administrations and political decision makers.

Which specific decarbonization and circular economy actions should be prioritized? What are the recommendations, based on quantitative analyses, for those running cities and planning their development? The study was conducted in the four sample cities through interviews with actors in the public and private sectors, as well as through analyses of decarbonization policies and circular strategies already adopted in the cities. A reference model was used to help identify the most significant circular actions that, in each of the three sectors, could lead to a reduction in greenhouse gases. The study went on to reveal “significant opportunities for reducing emissions based on consumption and the achievement of broader benefits, such as the improvement of quality of life for residents and an increase in resilience in cities.” These ranged from the electrification of transport and consumption in buildings, to the promotion of flexible working models, extending product lifespans and the use of materials that emit less COand the construction of fewer buildings to satisfy the same needs thanks to modularity and the sharing of spaces, to the promotion of the use of renewables and digitalization.

The result is a very useful guide. But now it is time for cities to assume an active role to stimulate and facilitate these actions. This goes beyond a commitment to strategies and roadmaps: it is necessary to set ambitious targets with clear actions for achieving them, with the involvement of a greater number of stakeholders in all sectors. This is also in order to create demand to which the private sector can react.

To support cities in this transition Enel X and its academic partners developed the Circular City Index, a score, based entirely on Open Data at a national level, that supports municipalities’ transition and that has already been implemented for all Italian cities. The Index systematizes urban “circular variables” in four main areas (digitalization, climate and resources, sustainable transport and mobility, waste and materials) in order to foster the digital, ecological and energy transition of cities by highlighting their strengths and weaknesses in these areas.

The Circular City Index and related sub-dimensions can be consulted through an interactive map, accessible free of charge to all Public Administrations in Enel X YoUrban portal.

For more info:

Download the fourth edition of the “Circular Cities. Impacts On Decarbonization and Beyond” position paper here.