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Urban Development

District energy: A secret weapon for climate action and human health

MD Staff

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Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina is getting a new district energy system. Photo by City of Banja Luka.

If you’re sweltering in Delhi or shivering in Detroit and want affordable, environmentally friendly cooling or heating, district energy may be your best bet.

A district energy system is a network of pipes that heat and cool buildings across a neighbourhood or entire city. Modern district energy systems connect renewables, waste heat, thermal storage, power grids, thermal grids and heat pumps—delivering up to 50 per cent less primary energy consumption for heating and cooling.  Visionary cities and countries have been able to decarbonize heating and cooling and achieve high efficiency, renewable energy, and CO2 targets with modern district energy.

To replicate and scale up best practices worldwide, UN Environment launched the District Energy in Cities Initiative.

Consider just one of the District Energy in Cities Initiative’s 36 cities, Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With the help of the Initiative and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the city updated its 35-year-old network. These refits increased the share of renewables by 75 per cent, cut harmful air pollutants by 94 per cent and saved US$1 million a year in fuel costs.

Well-designed district energy systems don’t just lessen climate change. They also bring benefits across the sustainable development agenda—improving human health by cutting air pollution, increasing access to affordable and clean energy, and creating green and decent jobs.

Similar benefits are being achieved across the District Energy Initiative’s 14 countries.

From India to Chile

District cooling is accelerating across India. Amaravati, the new state capital of Andhra Pradesh, is the first of the Initiative’s cities in India to receive investment from the Initiative’s partner Tabreed on a district cooling project for public buildings. The Initiative is supporting Amaravati to go further, innovating new technologies and expanding the mandate beyond public buildings in line with the objective of Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh N. Chandrababu Naidu, who recently stated at the city’s annual Happy Cities Summit: “I want district cooling for all the buildings in Amaravati.”

Meanwhile, Rajkot is the first Indian city to include district cooling in its Smart City Plan: the US$49 million project will save up to 50 per cent of CO2 and electricity, significantly reducing harmful refrigerants and peak demand by up to 30MW.

 “We are working to make Rajkot a ‘Climate Resilient City’ and have already prepared an action plan and committed to reduce carbon emissions,” says Bina Acharya, the city’s mayor. “Rajkot’s energy consumption inventory shows that electricity consumption in the building sector is highest due to cooling and lighting. Rajkot is now moving forward with district cooling to reduce energy consumption in the cooling sector.”

Working with the Initiative, India has recently incorporated district energy into the Indian Cooling Action Plan as a priority technology to reduce the economic and environmental impact of the country’s skyrocketing cooling demand.  

Similarly, in Latin America, Chile has incorporated district energy under its National Heat Strategy and Presidential Plan to address air pollution. Recently, Chile’s Ministry of Energy signed a collaboration agreement with the District Energy in Cities Initiative and the county’s largest industry association to boost district energy.

“The importance of this agreement lies in bringing together public and private efforts,” says Ricardo Irarrázabal, Undersecretary of Energy for Chile. “We are beginning a long-term relationship with a common goal, to have more efficient energy and to reduce pollution levels in the southern cities of our country. In this way, we are advancing more and more in the energy modernization of Chile.”

A district heating project in the Chilean city of Coyhaique, led by the Regional Office of the Ministry of Environment with UN Environment, is part of an approach to cut air pollution. The regional government has set aside up to US$2.8 million for the construction and implementation of the first stages of the project.

These are all encouraging developments which show the potential to bring massive savings in energy use across the globe.

Heating, cooling and hot water mostly supplied by fossil fuels

Heating, cooling and hot water represent 60 per cent of energy demand in buildings, most of it supplied by fossil fuels. Cities contain over half the world’s population, consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 per cent of CO2 emissions.

Forward-looking cities are connecting district energy with efficient buildings, waste and renewables to create integrated urban systems and achieve resilience and circularity. This will be a topic of discussion at the Cities Summit during the 4th UN Environment Assembly. 

About the District Energy in Cities Initiative

In 2016, during the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, 197 nations adopted the New Urban Agenda, which recognizes modern district energy systems as a key solution to integrate renewables and energy efficiency in cities. The District Energy in Cities Initiative is coordinated by UN Environment with financial support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), the Global Environment Facility, and the Italian Ministry of Environment and Protection of Land and Sea.

As one of six accelerators of the Sustainable Energy for All Energy Efficiency Accelerator Platform, the Initiative aims to double the rate of energy efficiency improvements for heating and cooling in buildings by 2030, helping countries meet their climate and sustainable development targets.

The Initiative supports local and national governments to build know-how and implement enabling policies that will accelerate investment in low-carbon and climate-resilient district energy systems. It currently provides technical support to 36 cities in four pilot countries (Chile, China, India and Serbia) and 10 replication countries (Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Egypt, Malaysia, Mongolia, Morocco, Russia, the Seychelles and Tunisia).

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Urban Development

The living air purifiers cities need more of

MD Staff

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In our all-too-hectic urban lives, a city park is a great place to unwind. Trees and green spaces have mental health and well-being benefits, on top of being great for relaxation and recreation.

Trees also help reduce air pollution. According to the study Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States, particulate matter, which is particularly damaging to lungs, is retained on tree surfaces, while leaves act as filters, absorbing polluting gases.

But the study also warns that while trees can mitigate the effect of air pollution, deposits of air pollutants on leaves can also affect photosynthesis “and therefore potentially affect pollution removal by trees”. As with everything, balance is key.

The cooling effect of trees

Trees can also significantly cool temperatures in cities. In hot climates, tree cover can reduce energy expenditure on air conditioning, while driving down the consumption of air polluting fossil fuels that power these cooling systems. Experimental investigations and modelling studies in the United States have shown that shade from trees can reduce the air conditioning costs of detached houses by 20–30 per cent.

“Trees could reduce temperatures in cities up to 8°C, lowering use of air conditioning and related emissions by up to 40 per cent,” says Simone Borelli, an Agroforestry and Urban/Periurban Forestry Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“When part of a wider landscape mosaic, large green patches within and around cities would also reduce emissions through avoided sprawl and excess mobility requirements,” he adds.  

Urban tree-planting has to be done right. Species planted should be ones that are most effective at trapping pollution, typically those with large leaves. Officials also need to account for things like wind patterns and tree spacing. If water is scarce, they’ll want to consider drought-tolerant varieties, and avoid trees that increase pollen and allergies.

Action is all the more important given that urbanization is accelerating—the proportion of people living in cities will be 60 per cent in 2030 and 66 per cent in 2050. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia. To address the impacts of this rapid growth and the related challenges, a large-scale effort is needed.

 Building the Great Green Wall of Cities

Nearly 8,000 km long and 15 km wide, the Great Green Wall is an African-led movement of epic proportions initiated in 2007 to green the entire width of northern Africa, a semi-arid region extending from Senegal to Djibouti. A decade in and roughly 15 per cent under way, the initiative is slowly bringing life back to some of Africa’s degraded landscapes, providing food security, jobs and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path. 

An initiative of this nature in urban areas is being developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners in preparation for the UN Climate Summit in September 2019. It aims to create up to 500,000 hectares of new urban forests and restore or maintain up to 300,000 ha of existing natural forests in and around 90 cities of the Sahel and Central Asia by 2030. Once established, this “Great Green Wall of Cities” would capture 0.5–5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year and stock carbon for centuries. 

On 1 March 2019 the UN General Assembly established the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which should give further impetus to tree-planting efforts.

“UN Environment promotes the planting of trees as a key way to mitigate climate change and boost land-based biodiversity, 80 per cent of which is in forests,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. “We are working with partners across the planet to boost tree planting for ecosystem restoration. There is scope for planting one trillion more trees, in addition to the 3 trillion that already exist on Earth. But it has to be done right; planting indigenous trees, supported by local communities, is a good way to go.”

Let the stones gather some moss

In those forest ecosystems, trees are not alone in cleaning the air. An ambitious project by Greencity Solutions in Berlin, Germany, seeks to marry high-tech applications with another natural air purifier: moss.

“The ability of certain moss cultures to filter pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from the air makes them ideal natural air purifiers,” says Greencity Solutions.

“But in cities, where air purification is a great challenge, mosses are barely able to survive due to their need for water and shade. This problem can be solved by connecting different mosses with fully automated water and nutrient provision based on unique Internet of things technology,” it explains.

Or by planting more trees that will provide the cover and humidity, that will help moss take hold and grow.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

New study expected to chart Melaka’s pathway to urban sustainability

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photo: UNIDO

Within the framework of the ‘Sustainable City Development in Malaysia’ project, which seeks to address the country’s urban challenges and which is being implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), executed by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), and supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the ‘Melaka Sustainability Outlook Diagnostic: Pathway to Urban Sustainability’ was launched today. The report is the result of an assessment performed by the World Bank’s Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) in which Melaka actively participates. The study will inform the Melaka State’s Structure Plan and its long-term planning document; it will also offer key recommendations for the State to chart its own pathway to urban sustainability.

The diagnostic consists of an overview report containing a policy brief, an executive summary and a benchmark assessment as well as six supporting reports that cover each of the diagnostic’s dimensions, namely Reinforcing Melaka’s Economic Success; Integrating Environmental Plans; Enhancing Housing and Services; Shaping a Compact, Efficient, and Harmonious Urban Form; Shifting Melaka’s Mobility Modal Split; and Demonstrating Fiscal Sustainability.

One of the report’s recommendations calls for the State and the City of Melaka to obtain a credit rating; accordingly, both entities already agreed to undergo a formal rating assessment with UNIDO’s support. Depending on the assessment’ result, they could tap capital markets to finance future infrastructure projects. Moreover, another recommendation calls for the City of Melaka to complete a climate-smart capital investment plan for which the city indicated its willingness, with UNIDO coordinating local and national inputs to raise funds.

Being one of most urbanized countries in Asia, 75 percent of Malaysians reside in urban areas and over 90 percent of the national economic activities are conducted in cities. Rapid urbanization has created tremendous economic opportunities for the country, but has also put enormous pressure on its urban infrastructure and services.

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Urban Development

Make Dhaka Walkable

MD Staff

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When it comes to urban mobility, Global South cities suffer significant challenges such as lack of transport equity and poor accessibility for the urban poor. On the March of 25-28, 2019, the Share the Road Programme (a partnership between UN Environment and FIA Foundation) participated in a workshop dubbed ‘make Dhaka walkable’ held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by the Sustainable Transport Equity Partnerships (STEPS) – a global alliance of researchers and practitioners including the Walk21 Foundation, UN Environment and the University of Leeds. The organizations are committed to identifying the essential steps decision makers and multi-disciplinary teams of experts must collectively take to meet the needs of people walking. STEPS aims to promote urban transport systems that can meet the travel needs of low income, city populations in the Global South.

Despite walking making up to 75% of all journeys, the conditions in which people walk in Dhaka are often unsafe and unpleasant. In order to highlight the needs of pedestrians in Dhaka, the meeting brought together engineers, planners, civil rights activists, NGOs, social scientists and many more for a real interdisciplinary perspective of the transferability of global walkability practices.

The opening workshop included representatives from Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), Road Transport and Highways Division, Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, University of Asia Pacific and others to help push the local walking agenda forward.

A study visit was also conducted in the Korail slum in Dhaka, to assess the real insights into the walking and accessibility issues affecting local, low income communities.

One of the gaps identified through the STEPS programme is the severe inadequacies of non-motorized transport in transport policy in the Global South.  The Share the Road programme shared knowledge on the experience of non-motorized transport in Nairobi -the small initiatives needed to make big differences, the need to have NMT users included in the planning of road construction projects, and the importance of securing a percentage in transport budgets. The vital and economic aspects of walkability projects cannot be ignored.

Having discussed the ‘eight steps to walkable Dhaka’ facilitated by Walk21, the workshop was brought to a close by Professor Jamilur Choudhury from University of Asia Pacific who gave some personal reflections on the development of transport policy and walking in the city, and stated his commitment to moving the walkability agenda forward locally.

UN Environment

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