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Energy in future cities

Populations are increasingly concentrated in urban settings, but metropolises don’t have to be planet polluters

While the definition of a smart, low-carbon, sustainable city may vary depending on who you speak to, there is one thing most urban planners agree on: cities have an extremely important role to play in the decarbonisation efforts needed to achieve the Paris climate goals.

Cities already account for more than 70% of global energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If forecasts that nearly 66% of the global population will live in cities by 2050 prove correct, then it's no wonder they are being put at the heart of efforts to mitigate climate change.

City leaders and local organisations around the world have been ramping up efforts and the low carbon, sustainable city movement is beginning to bear fruit.

Arup Group, which provides engineering, design, planning, project management and consulting services for all aspects of the built environment, is involved in low carbon city projects around the world. The company has been working with the C40—a network of 91 of the world's megacities committed to addressing climate change—for several years.

Arup's associate director in energy, cities and climate Stephen Cook says: "Achieving targets that call for 60-80% carbon reductions requires radical changes in areas such as how energy is used, how people move around the city, building design, etc. It's a case of leaving no stone unturned."

Target areas

City governments have greater power to act in cutting emissions in some areas than national governments.

Transport is one domain where big improvements in carbon intensity can be made. "There is so much scope to improve public transport as well as active transport, e.g. getting people walking and cycling, which has other benefits in terms of making places more liveable and enjoyable," says Cook.

He notes the buildings sector is one of the biggest challenges. "City governments tend to struggle to influence buildings because most are privately owned," says Cook.

“City governors should engage more with developers to devise city plans that consider how development, movement and energy are all interrelated”

The problem is exacerbated in the developed world where there is a legacy of inefficiently heated buildings in colder climates.

Generating heat is generally a huge challenge and there is a lot of work to be done in this area. Cities have many potential sources of heat, which Cook says can be captured and fed back into buildings through heat pump systems. "These are significantly more efficient than gas and allow you to tap into electricity networks, which are more successfully decarbonising," says Cook.

Third parties can invest in retrofits of buildings, or energy performance contracting, which is funding insulation or other energy saving measures, and recovering the cost through a share of the savings.

Paris, for example, has launched a programme which looks at the procurement of innovative, low carbon retrofit solutions for a wide range of buildings. "Such a big procurement programme will allow a lot of innovation to be brought in quite quickly," explains Cook.

City initiatives

The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) ensures that money for projects is invested wisely through its Green Cities Programme.

Key to the programme is the Green City Action Plan (GCAP). The GCAP outlines each city's sustainable development vision, strategic objectives and those actions and investments which will address them.

Last year Arup completed what it claims could be the first attempt to set out a plan for cities to achieve their carbon budget in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Called 'Deadline 2020: How cities will get the job done' the report provides an analysis of the contribution that the 91 cities in the global C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) need to make to convert the Agreement from aspiration into reality.

70% - Global emissions accounted for by cities

At the start of the year the Compact of Mayors merged with the EU Covenant of Mayors to form the largest and first-of-its-kind coalition of cities committed to fighting climate change. Known as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, the coalition comprises more than 7,100 cities across six continents and 119 countries, representing nearly 684m people or just over 9% of the global population.

Under the Compact of Mayors, 596 commitments made by those cities which signed up to the compact are equivalent to reductions of nearly 1bn tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2030 or 11.6bn tonnes cumulatively between 2010 and 2030. This represents 26% of what is possible globally through direct city action by these 600 cities alone.

The commitments of these two organisations, adding up to more than 6,000, under the EU's Covenant of Mayors, are projected to reach an overall estimated reduction of 240m tonnes of C02, or approximately 31% of the overall EU28 GHG emission reduction target by 2020 compared to 2005.

Asian initiatives

China and the rest of Asia have been making notable progress. The APEC Low Carbon Model Town (LCMT) project, for example, has been promoting low-carbon technologies in city planning in order to manage rapidly-growing energy consumption and GHG emissions in urban areas of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) region. It was initiated in 2011 and has carried out feasibility studies in six case towns so far and researchers are now carrying out a feasibility study of Krasnoyarsk city in Russia.

Tomio Harada, director for natural resources and energy research, for Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and leader of the LCMT taskforce, highlights that the urbanisation rate has been progressing fast in the APEC region and is predicted to reach 80.9% in 2050. The trend is predominant especially in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. At the same time, the amount of primary energy consumption in the APEC region has increased at an annual average rate of 3.5% since 1990.

"The energy consumption in the urban areas generally exceeds 70% of the total consumption of a nation, and this applies to the APEC member economies. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the urban areas is, thus, a crucial challenge for the APEC economies." says Harada.

China has set a target of reducing carbon intensity—the ratio of emissions to GDP—by 40-45% by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.

In line with this, the first project being implemented under the APEC LCMT is the Yujiapu Financial District Development Project. The project aims to reduce carbon intensity by 50% by 2020 in the district, requiring a 30% real reduction in emissions from both transportation and industry.

Yujiapu CBD aims to be a milestone in low carbon town development; containing many innovative solutions in an integrated manner, adopting wide-ranging advanced technology.

Looking forward

Integrated urban planning is one of the key ways cities can reduce their carbon emissions and improve sustainability and resilience to climate change-related weather extremes.

"City governors should engage more with developers to devise city plans that consider how development, movement and energy are all interrelated," says Cook.

He adds: "When talking about carbon, there are some basic features I would advocate. In addition to thinking about operational carbon from direct emissions or energy consumption, you need to think about the capital carbon that is embodied in the physical assets that you're building. Thinking about the emissions associated with the energy needed to make materials such as aluminium and cement is the next step."

A glimpse of the future

A 240-hectare site formerly used as a military airport on the northeastern outskirts of Vienna is the home of what is claimed to be Europe's biggest urban development project. According to official sources from the City of Vienna, the 'Aspern Lakeside' urban development aims to create 10,500 new apartments for 20,000 residents by 2028. The first building phase, which is already completed, provides 2,845 homes for 6,000 residents.

The project is the brainchild of the City of Vienna, its utility companies (Wien Energie and Wiener Netze), and Siemens. The partners founded a research company called Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR) in 2013 as a joint venture to handle the near-€40m ($49m) project.

The aim behind the project is to create a future-proof urban energy system. A coordinated research plan calls for the city to be a 'test bed' or 'living lab' for the integration of technologies that support energy efficiency and sustainable urban development.

Michael Strebl, Managing Director of Wien Energie GmbH, said: "The ASCR project gives us the chance to test new services for our customers."

As well as reducing the CO2 footprint of buildings by making them more energy efficient, researchers want to see how they can be used to generate energy for the grid.

The programme takes into consideration forecasts for both independent generation and energy demand (weather-dependent); and energy prices, which vary over time.

According to the partners, ASCR "covers everything smart", including smart buildings, smart grids, smart users, smart ICT (information and communication), smart energy production and smart storage.

Most recently, a Smart User App was introduced for the 111 households in the town who have agreed to participate in the energy research project. The app allows users to control energy consumption, heating and ventilation via a personalised dashboard via their smartphone or tablet.

Using the data received, the research team has been able to understand how users have applied the control capabilities to reduce their energy consumption.

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