Good Urban Citizens: Cities Continue to Lead Energy Transformation

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on October 16, 2018
Vicky Harris
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In the prosperous period after WWII, when urbanization and population growth accelerated in most of the world, futurists and authors alike imagined the cities of the future as crowded, polluted places where industry prevailed over citizen quality of life. Movies that became classics, like Soylent Green, depicted life in the cities of the future as dismal, where polluting chimneys dwarfed everything else. Looking at trends in urbanization and industrialization, this characterization of our future seemed quite plausible. In fact, some of the megacities of the 80s and 90s were fulfilling the pop culture stereotype. The term “smog,” coined at the beginning of the twentieth century, became synonymous with cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, and Beijing.

The future is here and megacities, a term that refers to cites with a population of more than 10 million people, are becoming the norm everywhere. What nobody predicted at the time was that alongside an urban society (a tipping point we reached in 2007 with half of the world’s population living in cities), a global movement would emerge to make cities green, livable, and agents of change when it comes to carbon emissions. We are living in the midst of an urban transformation, and the outcome looks increasingly bright.

Meet today’s megacities: greener and more livable than ever imagined.

Cities Lead the Way on Curbing Carbon Emissions

This was the headline of a BBC article highlighting recent data that shows, while countries struggle to cut emissions, cities everywhere are “making substantial strides” to reduce their carbon footprint. This is excellent news for our planet: it is cities that need to reduce their greenhouse emissions if we are to keep climate temperatures―on land and in the sea―at the levels proposed by scientists and reflected in the Paris Climate Agreement.

We’ve written extensively about cities on this blog. When it comes to carbon emission reductions, the impact of cities is significant. As we wrote in 2017, despite only occupying less than 2% of the world’s surface, cities are responsible for 80% of global economic output. Because of their economic activity and population concentration, cities are also responsible for over 70% of the world’s carbon emissions. This means that any meaningful effort to curb carbon needs to focus on cities.

The BBC article points out that “Twenty-seven cities, including Warsaw, Barcelona, and Sydney, saw CO2 peak in 2012 and then go into decline.” They attribute the decline to cities shifting to green energy, such as wind and solar, and providing “affordable alternatives to private cars.” Their supporting data shows that in these 27 cities, “emissions declined by 2% every year on average, while their economies expanded by 3% annually.”

How Cities Act

In our 2017 article referenced above, we wrote, “As agents of change, cities have significantly more flexibility to take action than countries do.” We referenced former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and how he crystallized the action-oriented role cities play in our society when he said, “Nations talk; cities act.”

An article by Information Age published a couple of weeks ago provides insight into the specifics of how cities “act” to become greener and more livable. They indicate, “Smart cities are no longer considered to be just a buzzword; they are a topic of constant conversation, and they’ve already come to fruition across the globe. From Singapore to San Francisco, organizations, government officials and city planners have made incredible efforts to support the development of intelligent communities.” The article reports that renewable energy technologies are “evolving tenfold” when it comes to powering city life, but that “much more flexibility will be necessary for these energy sources to provide the reliability we require. “

According to Information Age, some of this flexibility includes “safe, reliable and efficient energy storage,” so that the intermittency of renewables like solar and wind ceases to be a barrier for full de-carbonization. Storing excess wind and solar is one of the many tasks that our Hydrogen 2.0 technology is designed to do. This will allow clean hydrogen to be abundantly produced with excess solar and wind so that the utilities powering megacities can turn it on during periods of peak demand when solar and wind energy can’t be obtained.

Smart Cities Are the Present

“This is the result of no revolution, but of a steady evolution in the life of our city, namely in the way we move around and in the way we reduce, recycle and reuse waste.” These are the words of Giuseppe Sala, Mayor of Milan, as quoted by the BBC. The steady evolution in technology to meet the demands of urban populations, and in the will of local governments to take effective action is what has spurred the green urban transformation we are experiencing today.

The growing availability for smarter technologies to produce and store clean energy, recycle waste, and sustainably transport people in cities seem to point to a future where the past conceptions of a grimy and smoggy urban life remain in the realm of movies and dark science fiction, far away from current reality.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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