Urban Wire Three Ways Cities Can Support a Just Transition to Renewable Energy
Samantha Fu, Anne N. Junod, Sara McTarnaghan
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In June, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reported that May 2024 was the hottest May on record, marking 12 consecutive months of record-breaking global temperatures. To slow this alarming trend and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, cities across the US are setting ambitious goals to decarbonize—or end their reliance on energy sources like oil, gas, and coal that emit planet-warming greenhouse gasses.

But transitioning to renewable energy sources like wind and solar is not just a technical task for engineers. It requires major social, political, and economic changes that could transform lives and livelihoods in both positive and negative ways. Past energy transitions—notably the transitions from wood to coal and coal to oil in the 19th and 20th centuries—generated massive revenues for new energy industries. But these benefits were often at the expense of people and communities with fewer resources, who experienced job losses and economic decline.

As outlined in our new Urban Institute report, the current transition to renewable energy could repeat many of the same harms unless city planners and policymakers embed equity throughout every stage of decarbonization planning, implementation, and evaluation. This requires targeting resources and investments to communities likely to lack fair access to the new energy economy, such as communities with low incomes and communities of color.

Here are three ways city leaders can integrate equity into efforts to end their reliance on fossil fuels:

  1. Support climate-friendly industries while expanding access to high-quality green jobs.

    Cities looking to decarbonize their local economies should focus on developing new, climate-friendly industries, such as renewable energy, and helping existing industries transition to more-sustainable business models, like circular manufacturing practices. To ensure local residents and businesses aren’t left behind, city leaders can pair efforts to attract new businesses with supports for existing local businesses. They can help residents access the new jobs that are created by establishing training and certification programs to help residents reskill and upskill into new industries or by prioritizing local residents for jobs created through city-funded projects. They can also target these programs to residents who are underrepresented in renewable energy jobs, including people with low incomes, women, and people of color.

    Most local governments purchase considerable amounts of goods and services from the private sector. To advance their decarbonization goals, local governments can lead by example by adopting more equitable, climate-friendly procurement strategies. By electrifying public buildings and vehicle fleets, cities can create new jobs and serve as a guaranteed customer for new businesses. Cities can also establish new purchasing and procurement standards that not only include renewable energy requirements but also prioritize local businesses that provide high-quality jobs and are owned by women, people of color, and other historically disadvantaged groups.

  2. Ensure improvements to the built environment will create a healthier, more inclusive city.

    The built environment is responsible for nearly 40 percent of global carbon emissions. In the US, transportation accounts for another almost 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Widespread changes to how we plan, build, and move around cities are thus critical to reducing emissions.

    Local governments have many levers to catalyze these changes, including modifying land-use and building codes to incentivize density and discourage urban sprawl. To ensure residents benefit from these efforts, local leaders should prioritize strategies that both reduce emissions and create healthier, more inclusive cities. Cities can plant trees and create parks in neighborhoods with limited green space. They can also improve access to transportation by developing new, climate-resilient housing near public transit, invest in green infrastructure that improves resiliency and livability, and implement robust antidisplacement measures like renter protections and rent stabilization to ensure long-time residents can continue to live in their neighborhoods as improvements are made.

  3. Help businesses and households transition to renewable energy sources.

    Fossil fuel emissions from heating, cooling, and powering buildings account for the majority of building-related emissions. To decarbonize, cities will need to help households and businesses reduce their energy use and transition to renewable energy sources.

    To advance equity, however, these efforts should prioritize residents and business-owners with fewer resources. Cities can provide subsidies to these households and businesses to help them afford new technologies and shift to renewable energy sources. Local governments can also serve as a one-stop shop for information and educational resources by connecting residents and businesses to funding (including new federal funding, such as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund), contractors, and technical assistance providers who can help ease the transition to renewables. These efforts can help make the benefits of decarbonization— better air quality, lower energy bills, and improved quality of life—accessible to all households and businesses.

Local decarbonization efforts are well underway in cities across the country. In 2021, more than 130 US mayors joined Cities Race to Zero, a United Nations campaign to encourage urban leaders to reach net-zero emissions. As local leaders pursue ambitious climate goals, embedding equity into these efforts can help ensure the harms of past energy transitions aren’t repeated and that people with low incomes, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups share fairly in the benefits.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Climate change, disasters, and community resilience
Tags Climate mitigation, sustainability, energy and land use Climate impacts and community resilience Race, gender, class, and ethnicity Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
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