Massive deployment of low-carbon energy in the world’s cities is now both vital and economic, a high-level United Nations meeting concluded yesterday at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. Hosted by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and the Habitat III Secretariat, the meeting sets the agenda for October’s United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (known as Habitat III), the third in a series of UN summits held only once every 20 years on sustainable urbanization.

The thematic meeting in Abu Dhabi recommended a number of policy, technology, and financing measures in the format of a final declaration, covering energy sectors like electricity generation, building and appliance codes, transport, heating and cooling, and waste-to-energy.

“We have long known that cities are the most critical arena for climate action, and that energy is the underpinning factor,” said Ambassador Thani Al Zeyoudi, the Director of Energy and Climate Change at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “But what we are seeing today is a major shift in the cost equation. Energy policy measures we have taken in UAE cities – like encouragement of rooftop solar and mandatory green building codes – are no longer just environmentally responsible, they are now financially attractive.”

The Abu Dhabi meeting occurs against the backdrop of last year’s landmark Paris agreement on climate change, as well as the UN’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, which call for universal access to energy and set new global targets on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Urban areas form the critical link between the two global efforts, as they represent over 70% of global energy consumption and an equivalent amount of energy-related CO2 emissions. Dramatic cost reductions in low-carbon energy – like an 80% decline in solar photovoltaic costs in the last 5 years – are widely cited as one of the promising changes in the urban landscape since Habitat II in 1996 that can deliver major carbon and economic gains.

“Renewable energy, together with energy efficiency, is the backbone of a sustainable energy future,” said Adnan Amin, Director-General of IRENA. “It is already embraced by thousands of cities around the world that are not waiting, but taking control of their energy future for benefit of all. Habitat III is a timely opportunity to emphasize this message and enshrine it in the global urban agenda.”

At the meeting, ministers, national and city government officials, researchers, private sector and other civil society representatives reviewed each major energy sector and debated what scale of change could realistically be achieved on the road to enactment of the Paris agreement in 2020 and the expiration of the SDGs in 2030. Case studies – from London, Lyon, and China’s Vanke, the world’s largest real estate developer – provided additional context.

Habitat III will take place 17-20 October 2016 in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and is expected to be one of the most significant international events of the year.