Future of Cities: Rapid Urbanisation, Low Carbon

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Cities are responsible for 75% of global energy consumption and 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions    – if you include energy in construction and demolition, cooking, heat, lighting inside buildings and cooling, people commuting, freight deliveries, water supplies, street lights and so on.

Most people in the world today live in cities, and most large cities have major problems with pollution – air, water, noise, dumping of rubbish, sewage.

300 million will move from rural areas to cities by 2020 in China alone, plus a further 400 million people across Africa.  We will soon have 100 megacities, each with more than 15 million inhabitants.

Most people in megacities live in slum dwellings: shacks which start off made from bits of wood, cardboard and plastic sheeting.  Soon you see one or two or three storey buildings begin to rise up, squashed against each other, fighting for space and light.   Electricity soon arrives – maybe a twist of wire from a streetlight.

When mains water arrives, new troubles begin.  With no drains, it may only be days before slum areas are sliced by networks of shallow, narrow ditches filled with dirty water from washing, cleaning, leaking pipes and sewage - plus rotting rubbish.

From low carbon to zero emission cities

Cities need formal planning and that requires visionary leadership.  Take Wuhan for example, as a typical, rapidly growing megacity of 10 million people: the largest in Central China. 

The local government has a 20 year plan for expansion, is building new high density suburbs for 7 million more people, on industrial wastelands surrounding the city, as well as new railway stations and other infrastructure.  In 2005 only 50% of waste water was treated, now it is 80%.

What about carbon-neutral cities?   The government of Abu Dhabi is creating an eco-city called Mazdar, over an area of 6.5 square kilometres, for 40,000 inhabitants and 70,000 workers.  It is being built in desert and will cost Abu Dhabi $22 billion, but they hope Mazdar will boost the economy by 2%. 

Buildings will be covered in solar panels, and people will travel in electric robot-driven vehicles.  Two thirds of the energy used will be from solar, and all water will be recycled.

New cars, buses, trucks and trains will transform city life, but most city energy is burnt up in buildings, and things like lighting the streets.

Here are some easy ways to save huge emissions at low or zero cost. 

Just 9 simple steps can reduce energy consumption in many cities by at least 30%, using technologies or methods that are already proven, and which will mostly pay for themselves:  low energy street lights, making buildings last longer, use of polymer concrete, better insulation, heat pumps, better boilers, combined heat and power, better heating controls, roof gardens and better city design.

Adapted from book SustainAgility - read more / videos.

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