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Urban Development

Cities can fight climate change and improve lives by finding new ways to be cool

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Life has always been hotter in cities. Concrete soaking up and radiating sunlight, and the concentration of people, cars and machinery crank up the temperatures, making them on average 5–9°C warmer than rural areas.

This has led to fast growth of power-hungry air conditioning units delivering cooling. The problem is that this cooling has been pumping out excess heat and greenhouse gas emissions, which warm the planet and so lead to an ever-greater need for cooling.

Cities will still have to keep their citizens cool. We have already witnessed growing heat waves, both in frequency and amplitude. They severely affect the functioning and health of cities and their citizens. Rising temperatures contribute to heat-related deaths, reduced workforce productivity—estimated at 2.2 per cent of working hours lost worldwide by 2030—and poor air quality, which disproportionately affects the poorest communities. Rising temperatures mean that 1.6 billion people could face average summer temperature highs of 35°C by 2050, approximately 1.4 billion more people than today.

We need better ways to keep cool.

“About 40 per cent of energy consumed by buildings worldwide is used for space heating and cooling,” said Martina Otto, who heads the secretariat of the Global Alliance on Buildings and Construction at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “Space cooling is amongst the fastest-growing building end uses, and with higher temperature, more urbanites and rising standards of living, we will need a multiplicity of solutions to provide thermal comfort and protect human health.”

Active cooling needs to be cleaner and more efficient while we design buildings for more passive cooling and include nature-based solutions in buildings and cities’ public space. And we need to shift from the notion of cooling down space to providing thermal comfort.

Cities already starting to deliver

There are global and local efforts to address the energy efficiency and climate impact of the cooling sector, in particular through the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. These actions can make a huge difference, but cities can do a lot more.

The Cool Coalition—a global network connecting over 80 partners—is working towards a rapid global transition to efficient and climate-friendly cooling. It will work with C40 cities and its network of more than 90 members to share expertise and integrate urban cooling into their climate action plans, as well as with the GlobalABC, who issued a call: “Buildings—keeping cool, naturally”.

By implementing clean cooling strategies, cities can not only reduce the demand for cooling but align their policies with other areas of importance, such as air quality, public health and energy resilience.

Cities are working on innovative solutions, and C40 cities are delving deeper into them as they meet in Copenhagen this week for the C40 World Mayors Summit. These range from scaling up district cooling initiatives to cool roofs and green roofs and facades, to urban landscaping with nature-based solutions such as green corridors, a well-articulated offer of green public spaces.

“Cities have a critical role to play in delivering efficient, clean cooling for their citizens” said David Aitken, Director, Innovation at Cool Coalition partner the Carbon Trust. “In their role as a facilitator, planning authority, asset owner and financier, cities have many levers to pull that can influence the way cooling is produced and consumed. Taking action on cooling at the local level will also leverage co-benefits relating to health and wellbeing, air quality and living standards.”  

There are examples from all over the world.

Following the 2010 heatwave, Ahmedabad in India developed a plan for cool roofs, awareness raising and cooling stations. Since 2013, the city has avoided an estimated 1,100 deaths per year. It has acted as a blueprint for 30 cities in India, who have now released or are developing their own plan.

As part of their commitment to the Paris Climate agreement, Melbourne, Australia is banking on nature-based solutions. The goal is to plant 3,000 trees—which provide shade, reflect sunlight and release moisture into the air through their leaves—every year and cool the city by 4°C.

Copenhagen, Denmark, uses seawater in its district cooling system, reducing CO₂ emissions by up to 30,000 tonnes per year. The goal is to expand district cooling further and contribute to Copenhagen’s target of becoming CO2-neutral by 2025. Other initiatives in Copenhagen include green roofs for municipal buildings and a smart city energy lab that demonstrates how electricity and heating, energy-efficient buildings and electric transport can be integrated into an optimized system.

Cool roofs and new building materials on the rise

Cool roofs are gaining traction globally. Through its CoolRoofs Initiative, New York City has already painted more than 5 million square feet of its roofs with a reflective coating. Meanwhile, the Global Cool Cities Alliance has launched the Million Cool Roofs Challenge, a US$2 million global competition to rapidly scale up the deployment of highly solar-reflective roofs in developing countries.

“The concept of cool roofs is simple, but implementation faces barriers in the global south,” said Kurt Shickman, Executive Director of the Global Cool Cities Alliance. “We need to raise awareness of the opportunity. The availability of coatings and other cool roof solutions is often limited or non-existent. There is a lack of financing and investment. The Million Cool Roofs Challenge seeks to address each of these challenges.”

Green roofs and facades provide thermal insulation and help clean the air by trapping particulate matter. They offer the opportunity for urban agriculture and onsite wastewater treatment, adding further benefits. Bio-based building materials, which have a lower climate impact than concrete and store less heat, also offer real potential to improve the building envelope. While concrete has a high thermal mass, it’s extremely energy intensive to produce: 8 to 10 per cent of the world’s CO₂ emissions come from cement. “Alternatives such as bio-based materials are increasingly being used and can help reduce environmental impacts, while also providing the desired thermal mass,” said Otto. “For example, we have engaged in a partnership with Yale University to explore the use of such alternatives, from certified timber to bamboo and use of agricultural waste products such as coco fibre.”

It is clear that cities have a wide menu of options to choose from. They can walk the talk through public procurement decisions regarding their own buildings, set performance standards, use their planning authority and enter into partnerships with the private sector. By taking advantage of these options, cities can turn down the heat in the city and help put the world on track for a cooler future.

UN Environment

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Urban Development

36 Pioneer Cities Chart a Course Towards a More Ethical and Responsible Future

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The World Economic Forum announced today that 36 cities across 22 countries and six continents have agreed to pioneer a new roadmap for safely adopting new technology as part of the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance.

Cities are facing urgent challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic and other major disruptions, which are expected to culminate in a budget crisis that could reach $1 trillion in the United States alone. They need data and innovation to become more resilient, responsive and efficient. Yet there is no global framework for how cities should use these technologies, or the data they collect, in a way that protects the public interest.

This is set to change with the launch of a new global policy roadmap by the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance, designed to give cities the procedures, laws and regulations they need to use new technology responsibly. The secretariat of the alliance is hosted at the World Economic Forum.

“This roadmap is not about theoretical ideas and pipe dreams, it is built on practical, real-world policies from leading cities around the globe,” said Jeff Merritt, Head of the Internet of Things and Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum. “City governments are on the frontline of a global crisis and need to be able to act quickly and decisively to curtail this pandemic and set course for their economic recovery. Technology is an essential tool in this fight but governments cannot risk falling into the usual traps related to privacy, security and vendor lock-in. That’s where the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance can help.”

To kickstart adoption of the roadmap, the alliance has recruited a group of 36 “pioneer cities” that will collaborate with global experts to enhance their city policies, in areas ranging from privacy protection and cyber security to better services for disabled people and better broadband coverage.

The pioneer cities are launching their activities today at a global event broadcast by Smart City Expo World Congress, the world’s premier smart cities event.

List of pioneer cities (in alphabetical order):

  • Apeldoorn, Netherlands
  • Barcelona, Spain
  • Belfast, United Kingdom
  • Bengaluru, India
  • Bilbao, Spain
  • Bogotá, Colombia
  • Brasilia, Brazil
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Chattanooga, United States
  • Cordoba, Argentina
  • Daegu, South Korea
  • Dubai, United Arab Emirates
  • eThekwini (Durban), South Africa
  • Faridabad, India
  • Gaziantep, Turkey
  • Hamamatsu, Japan
  • Hyderabad, India
  • Indore, India
  • Istanbul, Turkey
  • Kaga, Japan
  • Kakogawa, Japan
  • Kampala, Uganda
  • Karlsruhe, Germany
  • Leeds, United Kingdom
  • Lisbon, Portugal
  • London, United Kingdom
  • Maebashi, Japan
  • Manila, Philippines
  • Medellín, Colombia
  • Melbourne, Australia
  • Mexico City, Mexico
  • Milan, Italy
  • Moscow, Russia
  • Newcastle, Australia
  • San José, United States
  • Toronto, Canada

“This initiative originated in Japan last year from our Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a fact I’m very proud of,” said Koichi Akaishi, Vice Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation for the Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan. “I hope to see more cities participating in the Alliance following the model set by these first pioneer cities.”

Leaders of organizations participating in the programme:

Miguel Eiras Antunes, Global Smart Cities Leader, Deloitte Global, said “The transformation from a traditional city to a ‘smart city’ does not just happen overnight. Success depends on the quality of the decisions that are made and the way those decisions are executed. Deloitte is committed to working closely together with the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance to co-design policy frameworks that will empower governments to accelerate smart cities initiatives for sustainable developments.”

“Being a pioneer city in the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance is an excellent opportunity for us to promote the innovative work that is taking place in Leeds right now, but also facilitates the opening of doors where we can learn from other leading cities around the world and implement best practice in our city,” said Stephen Blackburn, Head of Smart Cities, Leeds.

London’s Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, said “We need to work together to realize the potential of data to solve city challenges by putting it in the hands of those who can make a difference. But we also need to do it in a way that is safe, ethical and responsible. London is proud to join this global initiative as a pioneer city to promote the adoption of ethical smart city policies.”

Will Cavendish, Digital Services Leader at Arup said “COVID-19 has driven a step-change in the use of digital services in cities, and many of these changes will only accelerate beyond the pandemic. The policies developed by the G20 Smart Cities Alliance will be fundamental in ensuring that the enabling digital connectivity and data infrastructures, along with the rapidly-emerging technology-enabled services, are deployed in an inclusive, transparent and mutually beneficial manner.”

“Technology and knowledge are two strategic assets to build inclusive, data-driven, and sustainable smart cities capable of tackling new and emerging challenges,” said Roberta Cocco, Deputy Mayor for Digital Transformation and Services to Citizens, Milan. “That is why Milan is joining the G20 Global Smart City Alliance, as this initiative will allow us to share best practices with innovative cities around the world. Today more than ever, in fact, we need to collaborate with each other to identify the most effective tools to face global threats like COVID-19. It is only by joining our forces that we can beat this common enemy that is threatening the health, the economy, and the future of our citizens.”

Dr. Julia Glidden, Corporate Vice President, Worldwide Public Sector, Microsoft Corporation, said “Accessibility and privacy policies are critical to making cities more inclusive and transparent. Microsoft congratulates the Forum and G20 for creating model policies that aid cities in serving all citizens.”

“We will adopt a transparent and participatory philosophy of local governance in the city of Istanbul,” said Ekrem İmamoğlu, Mayor of Istanbul. “Our aim is to empathize with all segments of society, and value the participation of everyone, ensuring that the majority of the people are represented – not the few.”

Eduard Lysenko, Minister of the Moscow Government, Head of the Moscow Department of Information Technologies, said “Digitalization of urban infrastructure and entire spectrum of social services belongs to the Moscow Government’s prioritized policies. Moscow has developed and widely employs digital platforms that increase the availability of electronic services and improve the quality of life and safety of its citizens. Those platforms allowed by the way to promptly provide the Muscovites with the maximum level of protection in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Today we are ready to share experiences and coordinate efforts within the pioneer city programme for the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance. We develop technologies not for the sake of technologies, but for the sake of people.”

Gilvan Maximo, Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation, Brazil, said “The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance will provide us with a global partnership to accelerate the adoption of technologies in a responsible manner and for the benefit of the citizen, debating complex issues and seeking joint solutions. Therefore, Brasilia is eager to participate in this joint work.”

“This opportunity to collaborate as a G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance pioneer city on a new roadmap for safely adopting new technology is very welcome indeed as we work to develop a Belfast Smart District and to weave digital innovation into every part of our economy,” said Alderman Frank McCoubrey,Lord Mayor of Belfast.We’ll be exploiting new technologies and data to tackle city challenges in areas such as health and mobility to improve our citizens’ quality of life – and we must ensure this is done ethically and in a way that prioritizes transparency, privacy, equity and inclusion. Being part of the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance means that each of the partner cities will benefit from expert, tailored insights and policy tools and this collaborative approach will allow us all to make progress in how we govern technology more swiftly and effectively, for the benefit of all our citizens.”

Dr. Frank Mentrup, Mayor of Karlsruhe, said “The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance offers a unique opportunity to develop common ethical standards, foster digital sovereignty and therefore create and build a new resilient ‘trust infrastructure for cities and citizens’, as trust is going to become one of the most important and most vulnerable resources of our future.”

We believe that technology is a key enabler that can transform our cities in to smart cities leading to delivery of improved services to citizens and businesses”, said K.T. Rama Rao, Minister of Municipal Administration and Urban Development, Industries and Information Technology, Electronics and Communication, Government of Telangana, India. “We are keen to collaborate with G20 cities in formulating policy frameworks to improve quality of life of our citizens using emerging technologies.”

“Transforming our cities into smart cities is a great tool to improve people’s life quality,” said Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, Mayor of Buenos Aires. “That is why we are committed to continue incorporating technology, developing innovative public policies, and to work together with the G20 cities to build a modern and efficient state that makes life easier for everyone who lives, works, studies or visits us in Buenos Aires.”

“The pandemic presents an opportunity to reshape our future, with renewed digital rights and tools that should allow access for all and people-centred government. Local and regional governments will need to lead this shift to ensure the application of technology promotes human rights through equitable public service provision; putting our communities and planet first,” said Emilia Saiz, Secretary General of the United Cities and Local Governments. “The G20 Smart Cities Alliance is an important mechanism to help facilitate this transformation, bringing together a critical network of partners to collectively address and mitigate future crises”

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Urban Development

Renewable Energy Solutions for Climate-Safe Cities

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Renewable energy solutions can be the backbone of urban decarbonization efforts, a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Climate Initiative (IKI) on the Rise of renewables in cities: Energy solutions for the urban future finds. Responsible for over 70% of total energy-related CO2 emissions, cities are increasingly relevant in addressing climate change, building a climate-resilient urban infrastructure on renewable energy. Home to 55% of the global population today, cities are also the planet’s economic engines, representing 80% of the global GDP. According to the UN estimates, cities will have to accommodate two-thirds of global population in a livable, low-carbon environment by 2050.

Integrating renewables into local energy systems has become part of the transformative action in many cities around the world. Still, their full potential remains untapped. While some 671 cities have set a renewable target and over half of them aim for 100% renewables, most of the cities with targets are in Europe and North America. However, an additional 2.5 billion people are expected to become urban dwellers in the next three decades, 90% of them in Asia and Africa. Yet, cities in these regions are falling behind in renewable target setting, the new report shows, even more so as their energy demand is expected to grow.

Furthermore, the majority of large and mega cities that have set renewable energy targets have pursued only a modest share of renewables in their energy mix. Only the megacity of Los Angeles with 10 million inhabitants has a 100% renewable target set for 2045. Other megacities show much lower levels of ambition, with all but São Paolo and Shenzhen targeting renewable shares below 30%. Only 4 cities in the population range of 5 to 10 million (Atlanta, Barcelona, Madrid and Toronto) and 33 cities in the population range of 1 to 5 million had targets for 100% renewables.

Hydropower, bioenergy and waste-to-energy already play a significant role in urban decarbonization strategies. And the use of solar and geothermal energy in cities is rising while the ability to harness wind power within cities is progressing but remains marginal. In view of the growing cooling demand in Africa and Asia, solar thermal energy in particular has the potential for gradually extending into the cooling sector, tripling from 2 000 to 6 000 terawatt hours by 2050.

The new report highlights the importance of urban planning and developing “smart” grids through innovation and the adoption of enabling technologies such as electric vehicles, energy storage systems and intelligent energy management systems to facilitate the integration of renewables. This also means coupling the power, buildings, transport, heating and industry sectors to achieve higher system efficiency and enhance climate resilience.

For more information, see the Rise of renewables in cities report.

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Urban Development

Eco cities: Lessons from Nepal and Colombia

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Cities have always had to conform to their natural surroundings. Traditional Moroccan housing was designed with open air courtyards to help with ventilation in the dry and hot climate. While in Iceland, turf houses covered in grass— the original “green buildings”— offered superior insulation in cold weather compared to those made only of wood or stone.

Nature-based solutions have been central to urban design for centuries, but rapid urbanization is stretching cities’ limits. Currently, nearly a third of city inhabitants live in slums and informal settlements, often without access to proper housing and basic services

The United Nations estimates that close to 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 – nearly an additional 2.4 billion people – with most of this shift occurring in developing countries. Rapid urbanization will also have negative impacts on biodiversity and climate.

To address this issue, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has produced guidelines for governments and policymakers on approaches to sustainable neighbourhoods that meet community needs. 

“Sustainable cities and communities start with sustainable neighbourhoods,” said Martina Otto, Head of UNEP’s Cities unit. “By emphasising the importance of local context, design and integration, we aim to inspire all stakeholders involved in urban planning to think sustainably about the daily needs of people in their neighbourhoods.”

An eco-city in Nepal

One of the cities that UNEP is working with is Lalitpur, in Nepal’s Kathmandu valley. When it was built about 1720 years ago, city planners ensured that open spaces, water availability and ground water recharge were inclusive.

But urbanization and growth have deteriorated the quality of life in new neighbourhoods. Today, Lalitpur is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, with many residents lacking basic facilities, like water supply and sanitation, and with few green spaces.

UNEP is working with the city government to reinstate Lalitpur as an eco-city. Starting with three neighbourhoods, the consort will construct seven parks, install smart, solar lights; reduce waste to landfill; cut down open burning; and give residents access to health facilities in their neighbourhoods, among other benefits.

“Lalitpur is building on its history and local knowledge to create neighbourhoods and a city that is designed for people and with nature,” said Lalitpur Metropolitan City mayor, Chiri Babu Maharjan. “We have already built 4.7 km of bicycle lanes to link the northern and southern parts of the city and installed bicycle stands in public spaces. Thanks to this, air pollution in the city center has greatly improved, and with that, the health and well-being of our citizens.”

On the move in Medellin

Medellin in Colombia is another city where UNEP is working on greening. In the 1960s, millions of internally displaced Colombians set up homes in Moravia, a bustling neighbourhood of Medellin, which at the time held the municipal landfill site. The living conditions were dangerous and many residents suffered serious health consequences from the toxic fumes.

While the neighbourhood has made many advances in sanitation and urban planning since then, city authorities are determined to do more. Medellin is establishing “habitat and mobility corridors” that will simultaneously address mobility issues while creating green spaces and biodiversity. The corridors will be pathways for cyclists and pedestrians to access recreational places such as the local soccer field and cultural centres, but also provide habitats for native animals and plants. They should also have a positive impact on the microclimate by reducing heat and creating shade.

UN Environment

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