Barcelona, Spain: Racing to net zero

With sustainability a future-ready imperative, reaching net zero in carbon emissions is a priority for cities around the world. Despite only covering 3% of the earth’s surface, cities produce more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. 

To combat this trend, many cities in the European Union (EU) have set a goal to reach net zero by 2030, supported by an EU-wide initiative known as Cities Mission. Barcelona is one of the cities selected for the program.

Barcelona did not commit to be fully carbon neutral by 2030, but it pledged to accelerate its efforts as much as possible. Barbara Pons, Barcelona’s commissioner for the 2030 Agenda, says the COVID-19 pandemic and other trends—such as increasing impact of climate change and concerns over energy supplies given the conflict in Ukraine—has increased the need to speed up.

A holistic approach

Despite being a large city, Barcelona consumes less energy and generates fewer emissions per capita compared to other similar cities. Yet it still has work to do if it wants to reach its goals. Barcelona wants to reduce emissions in a holistic way, in mobility and transportation, in buildings, in the generation and treatment of waste, and in industry.

To get closer to net zero, Barcelona is implementing or improving several programs to reduce CO2 emissions. It is prioritizing smart mobility, including expanded use of electric vehicles and development of apps that provide mobility as a service (smart parking, bike sharing, etc.) Reducing transportation speed limits is also key to cutting emissions, not only of C02, but also of other pollutants. For most of the city, car speed limits will be decreased to 30 kilometers per hour, and only the main arteries of the city will have a higher limit of 50 kilometers per hour. 

Another of Barcelona’s goals is to make it more difficult and expensive to park in the city. To make the city a low-emission zone, parking spaces are being replaced with bike lanes. Every car is also required to have a mandatory sticker that indicates whether it runs on gasoline or diesel. The city also wants to ban older cars that are more polluting from entering Barcelona during workdays. 

Addressing climate change and energy efficiency

Being ready for the challenges of the future also means preparing for ongoing climate change. As temperatures rise during the summer months due to global warming, the city is rethinking urban spaces and is developing climate refuges for residents who don’t have access to cooler areas during the day. 

“Heat waves have become a big problem,” says Pons. “We are rethinking our city to offer residents shady places, with access to water and sometimes indoor spaces with air conditioning. We are adapting places like schoolyards to offer climate refuges less than a five-minute walk from every neighborhood in the city.”

Increasing the supply of energy-efficient housing is another priority for the city, which has an average building age of 62 years. Only 2% of housing meets the modern energy efficiency requirements implemented by the city. Barcelona currently has funding to renovate around 10,000 housing units per year. With funding  from the EU’s Cities Mission initiative, officials expect to double or even triple that number of units.

Part of the refurbishing effort includes energy self-production, through installation of affordable solar panels on roofs. Through this initiative, Barcelona hopes to promote “prosumers”—users who produce the electricity that they consume. 

“We have a lot of potential for reducing domestic, industrial, and office consumption,” says Pons. “Solar panels have the capacity to shift consumers to become prosumers, so we are improving our energy infrastructure.”

Technology can help

Barcelona is also adopting some advanced technologies to help it with its efforts. To reinvent its use of energy and be able to predict consumption, it is developing a digital twin of the city.

Understanding how the future electricity market will change and develop with the use of solar panels or other technology innovations is essential. With this digital copy, the city can experiment and research without the risk of encountering mistakes along the way. As we rapidly approach 2030, when many European cities have pledged to be carbon neutral, Barcelona wants to meet its climate goals quickly and get things right the first time around. 

“Digital twins and simulators will help us understand the impacts of any modifications we make in energy, mobility, or any other infrastructure in the city,” says Pons.