Skip to main content

Benjamin Hickman
Regional Technical Advisor for Asia and Europe, Celia Martinez, Technical Coordinator, District Energy in Cities Initiative, and Lily Riahi
Cool Coalition Coordinator, United Nations Environment Programme

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a major challenge to humankind and has taken an enormous emotional toll. In many of the cities where the District Energy in Cities initiative – coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme as part of the Sustainable Energy for All EE Accelerator platform– is active, COVID-19 has resulted in the drafting of officials from across municipal depar-tments into emergency response teams. It is important to acknowledge their heroic efforts in combatting and controlling the virus. While this has placed many projects on pause, when the pandemic comes under control, we will be ready to provide the technical support needed to deliver more energy-efficient, resilient, and cost-effective heating and cooling through district energy systems.
But it is unlikely to be business as usual. District energy projects may face challenges due to economic uncertainty in the real estate sector, tighter municipal budgets, and new work patterns rendering some commercial floorspace obsolete. But whether floorspace is heated or cooled at home or at work, the result is the same – heating and cooling accounts for 50% of total energy demand from buildings globally, with this demand predominantly met through fossil fuels. While there may be difficulties for district energy projects ahead, there are also opportunities. The increased importance of indoor air quality and comfort at home and work could boost demand for higher quality, more efficient, and centralized Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems. Such systems are the easiest to connect to district energy. Additionally, citizens who witnessed the drop in air pollution experienced during lockdowns may feel compelled to act on maintaining cleaner ai by choosing more sustainable options. Finally, tighter budgets in the real estate sector could make some building developers open to district energy to shift expensive heating or cooling systems off their balance sheet. District energy systems should also be considered a central element of green recovery plans and economic stimulus. District energy projects create high quality, local jobs and help cities and countries retain wealth by using local resources and reducing energy bills by up to 50% through energy efficiency.
District energy projects provide long, stable returns allowing them to grow from covering a single block to a city-wide network in 10-20 years. Unfortunately, district energy projects aren’t as easy as plugging in an airconditioner or an electric radiator.
– they require expert planning, forward-looking municipal officials and real estate companies, strong coordination, and upfront development costs. UNEP and our partners bring this tailored support to willing cities, and we have seen a general surge in interest in the countries where we work. This is reflected in city activities but also new national frameworks like India’s
Cooling Action Plan, which promotes district cooling as crucial for hydrofluorocarbon phasedown, or Chile’s Presidential Plan, which prioritizes district heating as a strategy to tackle terrible air pollution in the country’s South. Besides cities and space heating and cooling, UNEP is expanding district energy activities to look at integration with data centres, industrial heating and cooling demand, and the urban cold chain. For example, in India, we are supporting the greenfield Hyderabad PharmaCity – a new pharmaceutical industrial city.

– to prepare and tender what will be India’s largest district heating and cooling system. With UNEP support, the economic benefits of district energy can be achieved while tackling the climate crisis through reduced primary energy consumption and emissions.

In Morocco, a district cooling prefeasibility study performed by the initiative in the city of Marrakech revealed that district cooling would improve cooling efficiency of connected buildings by 47% and reduce coolingrelated CO2 emissions by 46%. In Chile, the study “Heat Roadmap Chile” performed in collaboration with Aalborg University showed that with a market potential of 40%, district heating could contribute to reducing the country’s total primary energy consumption by 13% and overall CO2 emissions by 20%. District energy systems can provide the jobs, resilience, sustainability, and economic returns demanded by citizens. In a post-COVID world, UNEP and partners will work hard to ensure district energy is a key element of building back better and work with all stakeholders to accelerate the green recovery by facilitating the decarbonization of the heating and cooling sector.


The District Energy in Cities initiative is a public-private partnership coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme that supports cities and countries in developing and emerging economies to accelerate investments on district energy systems. The Initiative is one of five energy efficiency accelerators of Sustainable Energy for All. For more information on the District Energy in Cities Initiative, please visit :

Benjamin Hickman,
Regional Technical Advisor for Asia and Europe, Celia Martinez,
Technical Coordinator, District Energy in Cities Initiative, and Lily Riahi,
Cool Coalition Coordinator, United Nations Environment Programme