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New Report Estimates the Carbon Abatement Potential of City Energy Actions

December 27, 2016 by Eric O’Shaughnessy

Cities, as the primary enforcers and implementers of policy at the local level, are uniquely positioned to drive reductions in energy costs and local greenhouse gas pollution within the building and transportation sectors. U.S. cities are already taking action to reduce energy consumption, expenditures, and associated greenhouse gas pollution. Now, in a new report, Estimating the National Carbon Abatement Potential of City Policies: A Data-Driven Approach, NREL estimates the carbon abatement potential of six commonly implemented city actions: building codes, building energy efficiency programs, smart growth, public transit, solar photovoltaics (PV), and municipal “lead-by-example” actions (see descriptions in Figure 1).

The study found that this subset of city actions has the potential to reduce national carbon emissions by 210 to 480 million metric tons of CO2 (MMT CO2) per year by 2035 (Figure 1), representing a 3%-7% decrease relative to 2013 U.S. greenhouse emissions.

Figure 1. Estimated Carbon Abatement Potential of Six City Policy Areas


In the context of U.S. commitments under the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), the results suggest that these commonly implemented city actions could help the U.S. achieve 15%-35% of the remaining U.S. target[1] (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Estimated carbon abatement potential in context of U.S. COP21 target


At the municipal level, the analysis suggests that cities can reduce their own local emissions by 7%-19% on average by 2035 through these six policy areas. This result indicates that cities can look to existing actions in pursuing their carbon abatement goals. The report further outlines how local policymakers can utilize data to make decisions regarding energy actions. Cities can use the methodologies provided in the report to gain insight into how to estimate the carbon abatement potential of these commonly implemented actions using their own data. Cities may prioritize different approaches based on the localized carbon abatement potential of different actions, which depend on local conditions (e.g., climate or existing infrastructure).

City carbon abatement policies entail implementation costs, but also provide long-term savings in terms of lower energy bills and reduced transportation fuel use. An economic analysis included in the report indicates that city-level carbon abatement potential can be achieved with minimal or even slightly positive economic impacts.

The carbon abatement potential estimate of the subset of city actions analyzed in this report represents only a fraction of the carbon abatement potential of the full suite of potential city actions. Cities can achieve further carbon reductions through local policy innovations or via strategic partnerships with other authorities, including utilities and state governments.

The report is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Cities Leading through Energy Analysis and Planning (Cities-LEAP) project. Cities can use the methodologies developed in this report and city energy use data available through the State & Local Energy Data (SLED) tool to begin their own carbon abatement potential analysis.

[1] The U.S. set a target according to 2005 greenhouse gas emissions levels. The remaining target refers to the difference between the target level and current emissions less reductions already achieved from 2005 to 2013.