Meet the Cities Working Towards Zero Carbon Construction

Cities in Europe and North America are shifting public procurement, green finance and community engagement to meet the demands of the climate emergency.

With the increase of extreme weather events around the world it’s becoming clear that proceeding with incremental change is no longer a sufficient response to the climate emergency.

A more fundamental transformation of economic, social and financial systems is required, and some cities are leading the way.

The lever of purchasing power

Cities have a great deal of purchasing power that can be used strategically.

For example, they can procure renewable electricity and energy by setting up energy service companies or with power purchase agreements with third parties.

They can also help to decarbonise the construction industry – which has one of the highest potentials for carbon savings – when commissioning new infrastructure.

One leading city is Oslo, which has put in place a procurement policy and strategy to direct all construction work to become zero-emission by 2030.

Oslo mounted a sustained dialogue with the market to design its procurement strategy and criteria. This led Espen Nicolaysen, head of sustainability for procurement, to announce new criteria on 9 October 2019 to give a 30 per cent weighting to environmental considerations, half of which is zero-emission non-road mobile machines.

To purchase such machines, it has joined forces with Copenhagen (which aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025) and Stockholm, in a cross-national tender for non-road mobile machinery and other sustainable procurement criteria to scale up demand and send a signal to the market.

Oslo’s first zero-emission construction site is beside its own Climate Agency building. According to Heidi Sørensen, director of the Climate Agency, early engagement with industry, including listening to the industry’s perception of risk and taking steps to mitigate it, was vital to successfully changing the policy.

More use of timber in construction will help reduce carbon emissions, she says, because it embodies atmospheric carbon, is lighter than steel, and is easy to prefabricate and assemble.


Amsterdam is another city engaged in transforming construction through procurement. It is taking a more strategic and collaborative approach, which involved extending the length of projects to build long term relationships.

Procurement officers are able to set minimum criteria for contractors on carbon reduction and increase such targets throughout the contract length.

Amsterdam is also joining forces with Copenhagen, Oslo, and four other cities in programmes called the Big Buyers Initiative and Clean Construction to increase zero-emission construction sites. They are currently negotiating how to share at the initial investments in pilot schemes.

They have identified that the main barriers to progress lie in the scaling of solutions and the role of regulation, and with the multitude of parties involved who need to be aligned in order to deliver emission reduction targets on construction sites.

Knowledge and Innovation

For this reason, Europe’s largest public-private partnership, EIT Climate-KIC (EIT stands for European Institute of Innovation and Technology the KIC stands for Knowledge and Innovation Community), is designing “deep demonstrations” of what is possible at the level of whole systems transformation when innovation is collaborative, based on rapid-learning and coordinated across multiple levers of change like policy, finance, technology, education.

Among its projects are “Climathon Global Awards” to find new systems-level solutions to tackling the worsening climate crisis with division of transforming 100 cities into carbon-neutral areas by 2030.

Five years of funding of €1 million (AUD$1.627 million) per year for each city is to be made available from public and private investors with EIT Climate-KIC providing seed funding.


Milan is one of these cities. According to Piero Pelizzaro, its chief resilience officer, enabling climate investment and sustainable behaviour has become an “urgent matter” for the City of Milan.

“EIT-Climate KIC’s integrated approach gives us an unbelievable opportunity to look at the socio-economic impact and opportunity for our community.”

Another project is Reinventing Cities, whose 15 participants include Chicago, Madrid, Milan, Oslo, Paris and Reykjavík. They intend to pioneer new models of public-private collaboration for carbon-neutral development as examples for other cities to apply to urban development in order to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of new and existing buildings.

One of the features of Reinventing Cities is that projects do not go to the highest bidder but to the highest quality projects, says Helene Chartier, head of zero carbon development at C40.

Leuven, pioneer of Healthy, Clean Cities

EIT Climate-KIC is supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. Perhaps its most important project is a Deep Demonstration of Healthy, Clean Cities.

The city of Leuven in Belgium (population 100,000) is one of 15 across Europe taking part in this initiative, but its experience goes way back before the start of this program.

It was back in 2013, following 18 months of discussions between the city government, citizen groups, knowledge institutions, companies, and investors, that it set up Leuven 2030, a non-profit organisation, to deliver a commitment to carbon neutrality.

Its mayor, Mohamed Ridouani, describes this as a “3D governance model”. “Because it’s an entirely open and transparent organisation. Anyone can become a member or get elected to the board. To be a board member, you need to present a binding action plan. In that way, we avoid green washing.”

He describes it as a horizontal approach to policymaking. “We consider each other as equals, as partners.”

“Our Roadmap 2025|2035|2050 involves 80 different areas of action, from making new buildings climate-neutral and greening public transport through to using more local biomass for clean energy and promoting the sharing economy. It’s a real systems-wide approach.”

The result is that all players in Leuven feel they have ownership of the city’s carbon strategy.

For example, this enabled out-voting of the opposition from some quarters to a new circulation plan for the city centre to reduce traffic and create more space for pedestrians and cyclists. In just three years this led to the number of people cycling increasing by 44 per cent.

If Ridouani could identify one particular secret of success it is to set “a common goal and mission that really grabs people. It needs to be something really compelling, something that motivates people to get behind it.

“When we talk about improving the quality of life in Leuven by making the city healthy and green, it gives everyone a warm feeling.”

And that should be what genuine sustainability is really about.

David Thorpe is author of the books The One Planet Life and the new One Planet Cities. He also runs on line courses such as Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.

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Source: The Fifth Estate


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