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What should municipalities prioritize to reach net-zero by 2050?

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GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?

Net-zero is possible, but it will take strategic and holistic plans happening on multiple levels of our economy – from consumers to corporations and all levels of government working together to solve this issue. It's larger than any single sector.

From insights gathered through GHD's consumer survey, our report, The World of Energy Post-COVID, was developed. The report is a call to action for governments and industry. It unpacks consumer lifestyle choices and green expectations as our economies re-awaken in our post-COVID world. Our survey found three out of five consumers have become more environmentally aware since the pandemic started, with 77 percent believing that their daily habits will now change to some extent due to the impact of the pandemic. Habits in three major areas were identified: home and work lives, travel/transportation, and purchasing. If these habits stick, there could be major implications for how power is generated, distributed, consumed and priced. We are at an inflection point. Success depends on our ability to harness these shifts, which could prove to be the difference between achieving the Paris Agreement goal of net-zero by 2050 or not.

The following are four themes identified through our research as critical for municipalities to address.

Attracting funding for sustainability growth – identifying what win-win looks like between corporations and local authorities.

The majority of lending institutions have pledged to be net-zero by 2050 or sooner. Due to this, corporations are making pledges and are seeing the need for Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) frameworks, policies and procedures. Municipalities can work with these corporations by identifying projects with aligning priorities to gain corporate funding assistance for continued sustainable improvements.

Banks and infrastructure funds have been focused on sustainability as a major concern. Access to municipal funding could become more dependent upon embedding sustainable and renewable infrastructure. A common way to fund infrastructure investments for states, cities and counties is tax-exempt municipal bonds, which typically mature from 20 to 30 years. Keep in mind, we're only 29 years to 2050; a 30-year bond means our cycle is already at least a year behind. Project finance will impact municipalities sooner than later as investors and financial institutions enact ESG policies and procedures. The best way to prepare is to address this change now and to invest in renewable and sustainable infrastructure changes.

Implementing circular innovation for economic reset – investing in the right areas to deliver the required value.

We're at an inflection point with our infrastructure. U.S. infrastructure is struggling, and we need to catapult forward to improve it before the funding gap widens. Infrastructure is a system of systems. By leveraging the existing infrastructure, municipalities can make upgrades while enacting improvements. Strategic improvements can positively affect other infrastructure issues while providing economic impact and workforce development, especially to pandemic displaced workers and those in underserved communities. Our aspiration should be an economic system that works as a circular economy, aiming to minimize waste, pollution and carbon emissions.

One way to holistically approach infrastructure is through life cycle costs. By looking at the big picture, one can see the cost analysis of building, operating and maintaining a piece of infrastructure for its entire lifespan. Additionally, if decision-makers highlight performance specifications for projects, there is potential to unleash innovation and encourage innovative solutions.

Planning for EV infrastructure – how and where to provide charging infrastructure to anticipate growth.

Our survey results revealed that 45 percent of Americans are considering the purchase of an electric vehicle (EV) within the next five years. To meet future demand for electric vehicles, the development and rollout of charging stations require planning and partnering. State governments will need to guide land use, planning and consent for others to build what is needed. The utilization of big data to unlock travel patterns could aid planning and placement for charging stations.

Firstly, residents need to charge their cars conveniently within their community and account for the variable demand on the electric grid. Secondarily, the weight of an EV is more than current automobiles, which could negatively affect our existing roads and bridges. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 43 percent of our public roadways are in poor or mediocre condition, which will only get worse with the increased wear and tear from heavier electric vehicles.

Adapting to the rapid technological change – considering the impact of future energy-intensive technologies on the grid.

Our grid should be repaired and modernized at the same time due to the increased adoption of renewable and alternate fuels for electricity generation and the upcoming need for a modern power grid to transmit the power to the end user safely and sustainably. While this will require some investment from municipalities, the utility corporations are ready and willing to assist in these changes. Utilities are eager for this new operating system because they’ve already accepted that the change is necessary for business continuity. It is also important for grid resilience during severe weather events. The Rockefeller Foundation has said that “It costs 50 percent more to rebuild in the wake of a disaster than to build the infrastructure to withstand the shock.”

What's stopping the transformation of the power grid? The real issue is the red tape of the government and the need for regulatory reform. It takes an estimated 10 years to permit new transmission or significant upgrades in our power grid. It's like needing bypass surgery for your heart, but it'll take too long to get to the surgery – it's imperative. We need to ask ourselves how we can streamline this process and make it happen.

If you’ve enjoyed learning about the immediate priorities for municipalities on the road to net-zero, explore our whitepaper in which we share consumer insights gathered from eight countries, including the U.S. and Canada. Learn our predictions for how we see societal shifts – and the transition more broadly – developing as we work toward the net-zero goal of 2050.

Maria Lehman

Maria Lehman has more than 40 years of diverse, increasingly responsible, multidisciplinary experience in transportation and facilities. She had held leadership positions in both the public and private sectors with expertise in economic development; quality assurance; highway, transportation, and facility planning, environmental assessment, design, management and construction monitoring; as well as emergency management, operations and maintenance. At GHD, Maria is focused on Corporate Business Development and National Government Relations, promoting growth and sustainable profitability. Her role includes direction, coordination and mentoring of the infrastructure business with the U.S. while providing technical leadership on major pursuits.
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