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Measuring the Benefits of Moving to 100% RE on the Local Economy

Session leaders

  • Bryan Buggey, Director, Vancouver Economic Commission (Presentation)
  • Erik Caldwell, Director – Economic Development, City of San Diego
  • Cody Hooven, Chief Sustainability Officer, City of San Diego
  • Katie Walsh, Senior Manager- Cities North America, CDP (Presentation


Bryan Buggey, of the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC) opened the session by setting the context for the City of Vancouver’s interest in building a case for measuring benefits of moving to 100% RE. Vancouver’s economy is the strongest in Canada with a high growth rate (4.1% increase in GDP) achieved while cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 15%. The City of Vancouver’s efforts to become the greenest city in the world by 2020 has led to an estimate of the city’s green brand value to be $31.5 billion.

Katie Walsh of CDP presented what data from cities around the world can tell us about the impacts of climate and energy planning on local economies. CDP’s global environmental disclosure platform includes reporting from cities, states as well as businesses. According to CDP data, cities report that climate change poses a risk to local business, and they also report that taking significant action on climate change has positive impacts on local business and economy.  Walsh acknowledges that gaps in the information that cities are reporting indicates a need to ask the right questions and find the right metrics to show the economic benefits of climate action. CDP would be happy to ask cities to report data or metrics that would aid in building this case.

Erik Caldwell then shared the San Diego story about 100% RE and economic development.  The City of San Diego once had a comparatively small economy that relied on two major industries: tourism and the US Navy. Unlike Vancouver, however, rather than strategizing to achieve a green standard, the City of San Diego invested in sustainability and energy efficiency initially, in order to reduce its operating expenses. The success of this approach drove city leaders to look at sustainability through the lens of economic development. Caldwell believes that the most powerful argument for driving the change that we want to accomplish is the economic argument.


Meg O’Shea, the Green Economy Coordinator for the VEC introduced breakout exercises to participants. VEC developed 5 city narratives—archetypal examples—for transitioning to 100% RE, and invited participants to think about the economic and other metrics that could be used to support these narratives. These narratives are examples of the cases cities might use to support their decision to transition to 100% RE; different cases may require different lines of evidence. The narratives included:

  • Cost Savings – a city that wants to reduce overall municipal cost and cost of living by transitioning to renewable energy and increased energy efficiency
  • Green Growth –  a city that wants to drive economic prosperity decoupled from emissions and the carbon-based economy
  • Healthy City – a city that wants to improve conditions for residents’ health, reduce disease vectors and increase social interconnectedness
  • Tech innovation – a city that wants to establish the municipality as a hub for technological innovation
  • Transition Town  – a city that wants to significantly wants to transform the local energy industry and economic base to avoid industrial decline

Participants at each table were assigned a narrative to work on, with support of one of the session’s leaders. Participants were asked to examine the current thinking on best practice measurements that might support the narratives, what we might aspire to measure (i.e. what economic data might be tracked if we knew how to find or measure it consistently), to note what gaps in data or measurement are known to exist, and to consider what other sources of data that might be considered to best support a given narrative.

Transition Town

Best practice metrics considered by this group included the share of renewables in the energy supply, air quality, link between GDP and emissions, the number of jobs created in non-fossil fuel-related industries (whether in clean energy or supporting related sectors).  The group also thought that it would be important to track metrics related to mental health, poverty, and job loss due to automation. Participants also mentioned the need to track economic inequalities and other disparities, to ensure that new policies ameliorated these concerns, rather than deepening them. This group also discussed the difficulty of tracking business decisions (i.e. locations, investments etc) and relating these specifically to energy use, even though they felt sure that there must be links between these.

Tech Innovation

Participants in this group discussed tracking the increase in skilled labour in the workforce, new and increased investment. Increases in the real cost of goods due to displacement of traditional manufacturing and goods production was also noted. Further metrics this group would track: employment, the number of startups/new firms being established, the number of patents registered, growth in existing companies, and the amount of outside investment flowing to companies in the sector. Further data that would be important to assess in support of this narrative would be the carbon intensity of jobs in the city and data related to the export of technology. Participants also discussed the need to track land-use and zoning in the city, and how this changed over time, as well as measuring changes in education system including in local universities.

Green Growth

Participants at the table discussed some of the commonalities between cities known as “green” cities citing Vancouver, rural German cities and Australian cities with which the group was most familiar. Participants also discussed breaking the link between GDP and carbon intensity, and recognized that further measures of economic prosperity beyond GDP are necessary. Participants in this group discussed the need for data to measure the impact of the circularity of an economy, including the lack of waste or the use of waste as a resource within a city’s economy, as well as a better understanding of the economic benefits of cooperative ownership.

Healthy City

Participants identified the need to measure indicators related to air, soil and water quality and other measures of environmental pollution, as they would expect these to decrease as a city became healthier. The determinants of health and inequalities in health outcomes by race and class were also discussed, especially with respect to how these need to be taken into account to be able to track the health benefits of a transition to 100% RE. Participants  noted that traditionally both environmental and population health is treated as an externality by economists. Participants discussed the growth in key businesses supporting health and healthy lifestyles such as fitness-related businesses and local food systems as a way to track the increased health of a city. The need for comprehensive and holistic municipal data about a city and its residents was also identified by participants in this group. Health data lack clear links to economic development at this scale, and most health-related data is examined at more senior levels of government.

Cost Savings

Participants in this group identified a large number of data sources to help support the cost-savings narrative in support of a transition to 100% RE, including fuel purchased, overall energy use and carbon tax revenues (in jurisdictions where carbon taxes exist). The types of buildings built in a city over time and the change in modal share of transportation in the city were listed as other supporting evidence for this group. Participants discussed the need for cities transitioning to 100% RE to have strong partnerships and positive relationships with both other levels of government as well as local utilities and energy providers, to ensure that all levels of decision-makers have access to and proper understanding of municipal economic data.


Many participants found the breakout narratives challenging; the most common challenge that participants reported was the difficulty of defining proxies to provide evidence of the benefits to transitioning to 100% renewable energy on the local economy. Another way to understand this is that participants could think of a great many measurable ways to understand how transitioning to 100% renewables could have positive benefits for a diversity of aspects of urban life, but struggled to connect these with sources of data that are reliably collected over multiple jurisdictions, and that can be provably connected to a local economy.  Further work is needed to develop reliable proxies for economic development to support a better understanding of the economic impacts of health, resilience, innovation, and other benefits of the 100% RE transition at the municipal level.


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