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Dr Katherine Maxwell

Technical Director - Net Zero Cities


Half of the world’s population – and three quarters of Europeans – live in cities. Developing urban spaces more resiliently and sustainably therefore has an enormous, positive impact on society as a whole, but also provides a huge area of opportunity for global-scale progress when it comes to chasing net zero goals in particular.

We sat down with Net Zero Cities Technical Director Katherine Maxwell to get a snapshot of the steps needed to formulate – and follow – a clear and actionable net zero city strategy.

Dr Katherine Maxwell: Creating a net zero city strategy


Step 1: Set the ‘big picture’ vision

This first step will include things like setting a net zero vision to really understand where the city would like to be in terms of emissions by, say, 2050. It’s here where we get a really good idea in terms of the level of a city’s ambition.

In this step, it’s also essential to look at the local geography and wider socio-economic situation. This really impacts the type of actions that the city will take.

It’s really recommended that, at this point, stakeholders also explore the current city management structure to really understand how that city operates more broadly.

Step 2: Delve into the data

This second stage of a strategy is the development of greenhouse gas emissions inventory, where we’ll work with the city to gather data on their greenhouse gas emissions in terms of the types of emissions, the sources and the quantities of those.

This is really helpful because this helps us understand the sectoral kind of focus. Where are their emission hot spots? Where the emissions coming from? Is it transport? Is it energy? Is it buildings?

Step 3: Create a robust routemap

Now we want to develop specific pathways to net zero. So once you’ve got all of your greenhouse gas emissions data, there are different models that are available, and you can use these to develop different scenarios to specific target dates. Essentially you can forecast an emissions trajectory to align with the city vision.

At this step, you normally develop about three scenarios. You’ve got your ‘business as usual’, then you’ve got a scenario to meet your current net zero targets, and then you’ve got an ambitious scenario, which is more Can we meet targets sooner? Can we bring this forward to say 2030 or 2035 instead of 2050?

From this process, you can start to identify different actions that could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions to firm net zero targets.

Step 4: Zoom in on your ‘To Do’ list

We then move onto action prioritisation. So after you’ve developed all your pathways, you essentially end up with a long list of potential actions that a city could take to reach net zero. Of course, you can’t do them all, so you have to really prioritise them. And how you do this is by starting to develop different criteria against which you can assess and evaluate given actions.

For example, this could be How much does the action cost? How many how much emissions does it reduce? How long will it take implement and so forth. So there’s different criteria that you can use to evaluate those actions.

And essentially, this process then helps you to shortlist the net zero actions. And at this point, we normally recommend that you start to engage with different stakeholders in the city to validate those findings before compiling your final strategy.

Step 5: Share the strategy

The last step is collating all of the findings from the first four steps above to develop a tangible net zero strategy, which should really provide a very transparent account of how the city has developed its net zero actions.

Sometimes it’s quite helpful to include a visual roadmap because not everybody who reads the strategy will be a technical expert, and it’s also a really engaging way to outline what your flagship actions will be, what your interim goals are, and the date you ultimately want to actually reach net zero by.

It’s also recommended that you can consider how to monitor and evaluate the pro the process of act in the plan as well. So developing different indicators to just benchmark and make sure that you are actually moving closer towards your net zero targets.