Decarbonizing Cities: A Community Approach to an Equitable Circular Economy

Decarbonizing Cities: A Community Approach to an Equitable Circular Economy

With the energy transition well underway, one key to its acceleration is through decarbonizing cities. But we must not leave behind those most at risk of energy poverty. It is possible — and vital to reach critical adoption at scale — to make a just transition to equitable, circular economies in cities.

With large populations, immense resource use and significant greenhouse gas emissions, cities are vital in fighting the climate crisis. Urban hubs can make an outsized positive impact against the challenges associated with a linear, carbon-intensive economy, like pollution, biodiversity loss and waste.

When cities – and the businesses and organizations operating in them – adopt circular practices, such as regeneration, reuse, recycling and upcycling, it can transform urban industries and the city as a whole. Once these principles are adopted circular cities can eliminate waste, keep goods and materials in use and regenerate natural systems. However, amid the transition to a circular, low-carbon economy, we can’t leave behind vulnerable communities – those that depend on fossil fuels, face environmental injustices and are at risk of energy poverty. A human-centered transition places emphasis on educating community members and empowering grassroots adoption of circular practices.

At Circular City Week 2022, Enel North America hosted a number of panels including a session titled: Circularity IRL: How Circular Net Zero Ambitions are Taking Hold Through Action. Moderated by Peter Perrault, Director and Head of Circular Economy at Enel North America, the panel spoke to how cities can decarbonize faster, ways to add resiliency to cities, businesses, communities and the grid, and how to ensure a just transition. The panelists included Heather Hochrein, Founder and CEO of EVMatch, Gitte Venicx, CEO of Earthwatch Institute, Michael Liebman, Manager, Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) Islands Energy Program, and Ilana Judah, Associate Principal and Resilience Leader at Arup.

Here are three key takeaways from the discussion for local government officials, business leaders and other community organizations who want to drive an inclusive and equitable circular transition in their city.

1. Understand Urban Community Design Flaws of the Past

First and foremost, to understand circularity, it is important to understand the scope and interconnectivity of climate change. One way to view climate change is though the relationship between rising global temperatures and the disruption this causes to global rates of precipitation. This creates more intense rainstorms and flooding in some parts of the planet and drier, hotter areas in other regions, leading to food shortages, poor air quality and ecological mismatching.

As we continue to see increased levels of precipitation, older coastal cities like New York, with aging infrastructure designed to accommodate lower precipitation levels, are struggling with flooding. Both coastal flooding and overland flooding, or areas not along a coastline, is exasperated by an increased amount of hard, impermeable surfaces and a decrease green space with permeable soils that absorb storm water and manage runoff.

Coupled with rising temperatures, and the urban heat island effect — increased heat caused by building density and heat reflecting off hard surfaces — cities are facing the consequences of a long history of flawed design that includes few green spaces and a focus on highway development.

The commodities of the energy sector from the previous century are not going to be the same commodities as they are for this century, as we look ahead at cities, it should start with redesigning and revamping.
— Peter Perrault, Head of Circular Economy at Enel North America

2. Scale Circular Adoption with Community Education

City officials and industry leaders should consider who is part of the conversation as the energy transition pushes forward and prioritize a more inclusive approach to driving circular economy adoption. So how can we create space for communities to better engage on the topic of net-zero and circularity?

Start by identifying the anchor organizations and who the community regularly turns to as a trusted source. We often see schools, churches and other community-based organizations acting as environmental stewards, raising awareness and providing outreach and education services.

“It is critical to think about who’s part of the conversation today, but also who’s not,” Heather Hochrein noted. “As an industry collectively, we need to be more inclusive in our understanding of the different participants, because we know that without a bottom up and top-down approach, we're not going to get the mass adoption needed to reach our ambitious goals.”

Education in the community also goes beyond galvanizing interest and organizing adoption of circularity principals. It also means job and skill training. As communities, and local business owners especially, begin to adopt clean energy solutions into their day-to-day life, it is essential that we are intentional about educating the end user. As Michael Liebman pointed out, “If a tree falls on your system and the [solar] panels are not working, folks need to know when there’s a problem and how they can solve it.”

3. Tap into Community Collaboration and Activate Available Resources

Looking at circularity in practice and in everyday life, there are many different stakeholders involved. From insurance companies, community organizations, local municipalities, local and small business owners to the operations and maintenance person.

For example, if a local bakery wants to adopt clean energy solutions, it requires a blended financial and installation package. An energy company that manufactures and provides solar panels and battery storage systems should consider partnering with the local financial institution that can offer the baker financing and the local contractor who can ensure ongoing maintenance. Or in some instances, a single clean energy partner like Enel North American who can cover multiple roles over the lifetime of a project. A key component of the circular transition and our ability to achieve net zero requires the participation of stakeholders upstream and downstream in the value chain. This makes the broad, equitable activation of community members that much more important.

Circularity in practice also requires critical and creative approaches to accessibility and a commitment to the promotion of solutions that unlock collaborative economies to make adoption more feasible. For example, making assets like privately owned electric vehicle (EV) chargers available for the public when not in use, which also creates a “prosumer” model for the owner. By creating a community sharing platform and network of existing infrastructure, participants who would otherwise be locked out can access affordable and reliable charging stations; in turn, driving broader adoption of EVs.

Moving Circular City Blueprints from Theory into Practice

To help drive a just transition towards a regenerative and equitable economy, Enel North America joined forces with four other new and existing partners from international organizations – PXYERA Global, Metabolic, Rheaply and First Mile – to form the Circular City Coalition (CCC). The CCC focuses on circular action and implementation through a circular innovation ecosystem fund in and for cities around the world.

The CCC will advise and implement inclusive, multi-stakeholder programs that represent community interests, in line with key points made by the Circularity IRL panelists. Adopting a circular economy requires a mix of legislation, public and private partnerships, strategic vision and of course, investment in action. If we keep communities – especially those who have faced the greatest inequities – at the center of circular design, everyone can benefit from a low-carbon future.