Accelerating Renewables in Asian Cities: Opportunities for Cleaner Air

The COVID-19 lockdown has given a glimpse of a clean air future for many people – also in Asia. In cities 100 km away from the Himalayas, the towering mountains could be seen for the first time in 30 years. This has contributed to the growing awareness and potential of renewables to help create clean, liveable and equitable cities. 

Air pollution: Asia’s public health crisis

Asia is home to more than half of the world’s urban population as well as 26 out of 40 megacities in the world and this region has seen fast economic growth. Rapid urbanisation and economic growth have contributed to swiftly growing energy consumption. While renewables are on the rise in Asia, the region is also expanding fossil fuel (especially coal and natural gas) to meet this demand.

The consequences of this reliance on fossil fuels are dire. Air pollution in Beijing made headlines years ago, but now also Hanoi, Jakarta, Dhaka and several other Asian cities have the smoggiest skies, endangering the lives of millions of their inhabitants. Less than 8% of people in the region breathe ‘clean air’ as classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In 2019, only 2% of the 400 cities in China complied with the PM2.5 safety standard set by the WHO, while 22 of the top 30 most polluted cities in the world were in India in 2020.

A different sky is possible

A different, cleaner path is possible. Driven by the growing concerns of air pollution, and to improve the health and well-being of their citizens, some city governments in Asia have turned to renewables and cleaner transport. Look at Jiaozuo in China. As part of a regional action plan to combat air pollution, the municipal government provided a rebate to residents who shifted from using coal to using ground source heat pumps and sewage-source heat pumps. And in Delhi, India the city government set several electric vehicle targets for private and commercial vehicles – all to reduce local air pollution.

Smog in Shanghai, China

Renewables, net-zero and beyond

Cities in Asia are also heeding the call to action to mitigate climate change, influenced by growing public pressure. By the end of 2020, at least 51 municipal governments in Asia had set renewable energy targets, and 37 had implemented renewable energy policies, most of which were in the building and transport sector. For instance, in Japan, six cities – including Fukushima, Tokyo and Yokohama – have committed to 100% renewable energy. A similar effort has been taken by other Asian cities, such as Palawan (Philippines), Xiongan (China) and Nagpur (India).

The development of targets and policies not only help local governments to tackle climate change, but also generate socio-economic benefits for the community. Seoul’s target to install more than 1 million individual solar PV systems on city rooftops by 2022 has benefited many low-income households and aims to add 4,500 new jobs by 2022 (learn more about Seoul in the City Snapshot).

Facts about Seoul, Republic of Korea

Get the national government to follow your lead

Cities are not only going renewable but are also becoming part of the global movement towards net-zero. At least 131 cities in the region have adopted net-zero targets to achieve their climate-related objectives. These local efforts have not gone unnoticed and have even pushed national governments to take stronger climate actions.

For instance, in Japan, city and regional governments have been leading the way in committing to net-zero by 2050. This movement was instrumental in pushing the national government to also adopt a net-zero target in late 2020. Similarly, in the Republic of Korea, 226 local governments gathered to declare a climate emergency in mid-2020. Building on this momentum the Korean Local Governments’ Action Alliance for Carbon-Neutrality was launched. These bold actions were influential for the national government’s announcement to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

How are they implementing their targets?

In Asian cities, accelerating the deployment of solar PV has been a key strategy to achieve climate and energy targets, predominantly driven by the growing number of solar mandates issued by city governments. In Jakarta, rooftop solar panels were installed on 98 schools following the governor’s mandate on solar PV application in public buildings. In India, Diu Smart City became the country’s first city to operate on 100% renewable electricity, thanks in part to the solar PV park and solar panels installed on 79 government buildings. Other Indian cities – including Delhi, Pune and Rajkot – have also seen significant growth in solar PV installation.

Renewables are also growing in the heating sector: in China, six large solar thermal systems were completed in five urban areas to provide hot water, and three solar district heating systems were commissioned in the Tibetan towns of Shenzha, Zhongba and Saga.

Asian cities are frontrunners in electrifying public transport, with much of the progress concentrated in China. China dominates the global e-mobility market, accounting for 98% of the world’s electric buses and for the majority of electrified cars, two-/three-wheelers and trucks. Some Chinese cities, such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, have scaled up efforts to increase the integration of renewables in EV charging infrastructures. In the Philippines, the city of Tacloban introduced 90 electric mini-buses (jeepneys) with integrated solar PV to replace the aging combustion engine fleet.

The time for renewables in cities is now.

There is a lot of movement around renewables in cities in Asia. But at the same there is a continued push for coal power in Asia. Most of the global coal capacity is located in Asia and is expected to grow further. The consequences would be disastrous  – a big risk for clean air and the Paris Agreement.  With record-low costs for renewables, the potential for reducing air pollution and rising international and public pressure, the time for renewables in cities is now.

We’re excited to share the Renewables in Cities 2021 Global Status Report, REN21’s annual stock-take of the global transition to renewable energy at the city-level. REC 2021 maps ways that cities are advancing energy and climate agendas, demonstrates what’s possible, and presents hundreds of examples of best practices – including many from Asia.