• Cities account for two-thirds of the world’s energy use and are taking the lead in ditching coal as an energy source.
  • Several cities are now taking dramatic action to remove coal from their energy mix and embrace a clean energy transition.
  • A few strategies are emerging to reduce cities' reliance on the coal industry, including empowering municipal utilities, reducing energy demand, and incentivizing renewable energy.

Countries around the world will need to phase out coal as a major energy source if the world is to reach its climate targets to avoid dangerous warming. Today, coal power makes up 38% of the electricity grid, and most countries outside of Europe and North America are on track to continue and expand the use of coal.

But cities, which account for two-thirds of the world’s energy use, are taking the lead in ditching coal as an energy source, according to a new report from C40 Cities, an international organization of city leaders enacting climate measures.

The organization measured the sizeable impact that cities have on the world’s trajectory for coal use. It evaluated the impact of coal-fired power plants on its 61 member cities and found that continued coal use could cause 264,900 premature deaths due to air pollution, and cost cities $877 billion over the next decade. If those cities successfully phased out coal, they could save emissions accounting for 6% of the world’s carbon budget for 2030.

“Coal is still the biggest threat, but also the biggest opportunity around the world,” says Markus Berensson, one of the report’s authors. “If we continue on the current path, it will result in a huge amount of emissions, but if we start on the right path now, it will avoid a huge amount of emissions that saves the world time to deal with other big sources, such as transport or agriculture.”

Several cities are now taking dramatic action to remove coal from their energy mix and embrace a clean energy transition. As national governments delay, city governments are becoming more assertive over energy policy. A few strategies are emerging to reduce their reliance on the coal industry: phasing out coal, empowering municipal utilities, reducing energy demand, and incentivizing renewable energy.

We’ve highlighted four places that are taking some of the biggest moves to curb their coal usage.

Los Angeles, USA

Los Angeles is shutting down its coal-fired plants. The city recently set a goal of 100% clean energy by 2035, a decade ahead of its prior target. In 2016, the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP) pulled out of co-ownership of a massive coal power plant in Arizona that had been the third-largest generator of greenhouse gases in the US. Within a year, the remaining utilities that owned the plant voted to close it and it was demolished in 2020. LADWP also rolled out a plan to transition a coal-fired plant in Utah to natural gas by 2025, and then to clean hydrogen energy by 2045.

Few major cities have moved as dramatically, or with so much regional impact, to shift their fuel mix away from coal.

London, United Kingdom

London is working to make clean alternatives to coal more affordable. In 2019, the city partnered with a renewable energy company to launch a municipal utility that generates 100% renewable energy. The stated goals, according to mayor Sadiq Khan, are to make clean energy more widely accessible while saving households on their energy bills. The rollout is still small, with roughly 6,000 households signed up by mid-2021, but the company plans to continue growing. The city also launched a Solar Opportunity Map, which helps people estimate the potential to install solar panels on buildings and open land around the city. It’s part of the mayor’s larger Solar Action Plan, which seeks to have a gigawatt of solar energy capacity installed in the city by 2030.

a chart showing solar installations in the uk
Solar installations in London have risen over the past decade.
Image: Ofgem

New York, USA

New York City is reducing energy demand by updating its infrastructure. Over the past decade, New York has passed a suite of laws to improve the energy efficiency of its buildings, which make up the majority of its greenhouse gas emissions. A law passed in 2019 requires all new buildings and renovations to have green or solar roofs. In May of 2021, an amendment to the city’s building code was proposed that would promote building electrification by setting a limit on the amount of carbon emissions new and renovated buildings can produce. The measure would effectively ban natural gas in new buildings.

Appalachian Metros, USA

Eight cities throughout the Appalachian region of the US between Pennsylvania and Alabama are working together to help ensure that a clean energy transition includes everyone. Mayors from Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere across the region signed on to the Marshall Plan for Middle America. It’s a plan to create clean energy infrastructure wind turbines and electric vehicle charging stations, and creating jobs in these fields to replace the ones lost in the move away from coal and fossil fuels. The plan brings government leaders together with heavy industry companies, and investors to reshape the economic future of the region, historically dependent upon extracting and burning coal and fossil fuels.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Phasing out coal is a race against time

Pressure from subnational governments can spur national actors to enact plans for getting away from coal quickly, which is what researchers emphasize is most essential at this point. “It’s climate delay, not denial, that’s the problem now,” says Rachel Huxley, another researcher on the C40 Cities report. “Acting fast enough is the challenge.”

While localities can’t set policy for an entire country, local governments are exercising soft power to get national governments to adhere to climate commitments set out in the Paris Agreement. So far, 40 cities around the world have joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an organization of national and regional governments as well as businesses working to phase out coal.