5 lessons from the world’s most successful cities

Published: World Economic Forum

www-ET-infrastructure-Shanghai_Tower_738x415 Imagine a bank note. It’s lying there on the footpath 20 feet ahead of us. We are walking down Wangfujing Street in Beijing, or maybe Fifth Avenue in New York, and from this distance we can’t quite spot how big the banknote is; a 10, a 50 or a 100? Chinese yuan or US dollars? We are in a bit of a rush, but of course appreciate an opportunity when we see one and take the time to pick it up and pocket it.

- Saturday, 24 October 2015 By Fleming Voetmann, Head of Sustainability & Public Affairs

Right now, sharp cities across the world are doing just that; appreciating opportunities almost as accessible as picking money up off the street. And by learning from these cities and applying their best practice solutions other cities can seize great opportunities too.

Cities can make a real difference
Cities hold an important key to combating climate change. They might only cover 2% of the world’s surface, but they drive 80% of its economic output, and today over half of the earth’s population lives in them. With urbanization on an upward curve these city-dwellers can look forward to being joined by 2.3 billion more neighbors by 20501).

This means that cities can make a real difference. The benefits of creating compact connected and energy efficient cities are abundant. When done right, city planning can generate growth and create jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and make services like water, energy, and transport more accessible. The technologies to make that happen already exist and by fast tracking the adaption of these innovative solutions we can accelerate the low-carbon development in cities. And the investments even come with attractive pay-back times.

The building sector offers great potential
One main key to unlocking the potential of well-planned and efficient cities is the built environment. We need to accelerate the uptake of best available technologies when we expand our cities or renovate existing buildings and infrastructure. By doing this, we can grab the opportunity within our reach to pursue a low-carbon development path and save money at the same time.

Today, the building sector offers the largest cost-effective opportunity for energy savings2). It is the largest energy-consuming sector and accounts for over one third of final global energy consumption. At the same time, two-thirds of the urban square meterage needed across the world 15 years from now has not been built yet3). This offers city developers the opportunity to design new buildings that are energy efficient from the beginning.

An example of this is the second largest building in the world, the Shanghai Tower. The building complies with the strictest environmental requirements, helped along by modern technology.. Buildings like Shanghai Tower don’t only save energy they also increase comfort and reduce air pollution make cities more livable. Another example is HafenCity, a new quarter that has been developed in the heart of Hamburg. Here best technologies keep the consumption of power, heating and cooling to a minimum saving fuel costs as well as CO2 emissions. And in Russia a new Kindergarten in Tomsk, has all its heat and hot water supplied via heat pumps, which cuts the heating costs down to half compared to the cost of heat supplied by conventional sources.

Modern infrastructures distribute power and water
As buildings are part of a bigger energy system, cities will need infrastructure to distribute power and hot and cold water. Modern district energy systems can cater for this and tap into a wide range of low-carbon energy sources. A transition to modern district heating and cooling systems brings us closer to the 2-3 degrees Celsius pathway. Several cities – including Anshan, Dubai, Munich, Tokyo, Warsaw or Paris leverage the potential of combined heat and power (CHP), waste-to-heat or allow the redirecting of industry surplus heat that otherwise would be wasted4)

This type of solution can be applied in many other cities too and by 2050, as much as 58% of the CO2 reductions required in the energy sector could be achieved in this way.

Well-proven solutions help save water
Finally, as the world population increases and standards of living are on the rise, more water is needed in homes and for production of food and products. According to the United Nations, we can expect the demand for water to increase by 55% within the next generation, Fortunately, we have the means to cost-efficiently take this challenge in hand; well-proven solutions can help cities worldwide save water and energy within water supply, wastewater treatment and irrigation of farming areas.

Waste water facilities can even produce energy: In Aarhus, Denmark, a local water company has managed to transform a wastewater facility, so it also serves as a combined heat and power plant, delivering an energy surplus. The plant produces 90% more energy than it consumes, so the excess heat is lead into the district heating system of the city, thereby reducing its carbon footprint.

Unlock the untapped potential
This takes us back to the beginning: If we saw money lying in the street, we would of course pick it up and put it in our pocket. Even on a busy day. And when it comes to cities, the low hanging fruits are there just within our reach. With 80 percent of economic output and 70 percent of energy consumption taking place in cities, they hold a great untapped potential to be unlocked. So let’s make the multiple benefits of energy efficiency common knowledge, and appreciate what can be achieved with existing technologies. It’s about identifying all the pockets of opportunity and taking action now.

1) The Climate Economy Report. Better Growth. Better Climate. http://2014.newclimateeconomy.report/cities/
2) IEA World Energy Outlook 2013, page 231
3) Institute for Sustainable Communities: Urban Climate Adaptation: From Risk Barriers to Results (2013)
4) IEA 2011, Cogeneration and Renewables, Solutions for a Low Carbon Energy Future. See also UNEP DES Report


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