More than half the world’s population already lives in cities and consumes 70 per cent of the world’s energy. By 2050, it is estimated that 70 per cent of the population will be urban dwellers. At the same time, a movement has begun that is seeing a large number of cities committing themselves to becoming sustainable in various ways and to various extents.
Europe is leading these changes. In the ranking of the major sustainable cities in the world by global consultants Arcadis, seven European cities make the top-ten list, including Amsterdam and Berlin, two cities in which Vattenfall is playing an active part in the transition.
But there are many good examples beyond Europe. The Canadian city of Vancouver, with a population of 600,000, is one of some fifty cities that have undertaken to become 100 per cent renewable. This group also includes San Diego and San Francisco in California, Sydney in Australia and the Danish capital Copenhagen.
The time frame for reaching these targets varies among the cities, as do their ambitions. Vancouver has set the bar higher than most of the others: in addition to electricity, heat and cooling are also to be produced from renewable sources by 2035 at the latest, with transportation set to be run on renewable energy by 2050. Thanks to the city’s environmental profile, it hopes to attract green businesses to settle there, and plans to reach 30,000 green jobs by 2020 – twice as many as in 2010.
The preconditions for relying on renewable energy obviously differ in different parts of the world. So it’s hardly surprising that Reykjavik, with all its hot thermal sources, can dispense completely with fossil energy. And the island country of Costa Rica met all its energy needs with renewables at the beginning of the year thanks to its extensive hydro power resources in combination with abundant rainfall.
Other parts of the world lack the same favourable starting point. Seoul, for example, with a population of 11 million and largely dependent on coal power, is nevertheless considering reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. Its plan is to draw on resources such as solar panels and electric cars.
The UN Climate Conference will open in Paris at the end of November this year. But so far international government-level summits on climate issues have achieved limited concrete results. Instead the trend today is that cities are the frontrunners of sustainability.
“Global climate discussions are generally held at state level, but today we see cities all over the world taking the lead over nations in sustainability – both in ambitions and when it comes to acting on these ambitions,” says Min-ku Chung, head of Vattenfall’s City Partnership Programme. “Also, it is not only about emission targets such as carbon dioxide, but also about making the city liveable for its citizens, for example by promoting involvement and co-decision, often by using modern technology.”
But what exactly do the terms “sustainable cities” and “fossil-free” mean? A closer look shows that answers can differ greatly.
Professor of Environmental Strategies and Future Studies at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm Mattias Höjer says: “The term ‘sustainability’ covers such a diversity of approaches. Does it apply only to the city’s own efforts, for instance only buying green electricity? Or does it mean that the whole region should be fossil-free – that no petrol pumps or fossil-fuel installations may be found within its geographical boundaries? Or is a consumption perspective applied, which would include all emissions produced outside the city limits, and take into account the city’s residents and their consumption rather than emissions within the city’s geographical area?”
If a consumption perspective is applied, aircraft emissions, for example, ought to be distributed on the basis of travellers’ home cities, even if they are flying to the other side of the world. By the same token, the energy used in the production of the goods consumed in the city should be included in the calculation, even if they are manufactured in another country.
But despite the fact that cities have so far been unclear – and sometimes careless – in their use of the term “sustainability,” Höjer nevertheless feels that it is significant that some are leading the way by setting up sustainability targets, as this at least allows researchers to initiate a discussion about what aspects may be missing.
For cities to become really sustainable, Höjer sees a need for major social changes over several decades, including in how their residents live, work, consume and use transport.
Reducing traffic, which represents a large part of urban emissions and energy consumption, is only one of the enormous challenges facing society. “Today, people travel long distances to work by car, but this should not be necessary,” he says. “I believe that in the future many people will work in location-independent jobs, either at home or in a local node that offers social contacts and office services – rather like what we can already see in cafés in the city. That means that people will be able to cycle, walk or use public transport to get to work to a much greater degree than at present.”
Energy efficiency is certainly improving as electrical appliances, transport and buildings become increasingly energy-efficient, but Höjer fears that this will not be enough to achieve the target.
“Today’s consumption behaviour places a heavy burden on the environment. We live in a tremendously profligate way today. During the second half of the 1900s, the living area per person doubled. Today, even small urban apartments have large freezers while the need to store food at home has declined as there are often shops in the vicinity. We also do an incredible amount of washing compared with the past, so that we use more energy even with increasingly efficient washing machines. And perhaps we will stop regarding flying as a human right as much as we do now if we want to have a reasonable climate in 30 years.”
Smart IT solutions may well help in moving forward. Viable possibilities could include apps that tell us the quickest way to combine riding a bicycle and taking a bus to get to work; functions that handle huge volumes of data to control dynamic signposts and road tolls; requirement-controlled ventilation and heating in the home; and better information about the goods that we consume. Some of these functions are already available in some form, others still need to be invented. Perhaps new services will completely change the nature of the game.
Couch surfing and Airbnb exemplify two growing services that help travellers find affordable overnight stays with private individuals on the Internet, and in that way utilise the available housing stock more efficiently.
“These are two interesting services which have emerged in recent years, and it’s conceivable that they are beginning to have an impact on the hotel industry, so that not so much hotel space will be needed, thus leading to more efficient use of space,” Höjer says.
The sustainable city is a lean energy user and reuses waste and waste heat from ventilation air and waste water. Public transport, bicycles and walkways largely replace the use of private cars, which increasingly run on electricity or other renewable fuels. These changes will require major coordinated efforts, and large urban extension projects are already becoming increasingly integrated. Heat and cooling, electrical power, transportation, charging infrastructure and other aspects are mutually dependent in the sustainable city. For an energy company such as Vattenfall, this means new opportunities to offer its expert services.
“We work as partners and advisors in several projects already today,” Chung says. “For example, we are helping Berlin Olympic Stadium as well as the city’s Free University to become climate neutral. In the northern part of Amsterdam, we are engaged in similar sustainable ambitions in the Buiksloterham district, and in Sweden we support several municipalities in their work with data centres and re-using heat from waste. This part of our business is likely to grow in the future.”