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Is there a clean future for our cities?
17/10 - 2016

Is there a clean future for our cities?

The cities of the future will be big since nothing will be able to hinder their expansion, but they could be clean if we understand quickly enough that energy efficiency represents a new worldwide market, a new industrial revolution, capable of boosting sustainable development and economic growth.

It takes one glance at the thousands of 50-story buildings sprouting from the ground of emerging countries to understand that degrowth is impossible. Nothing will stop the expansion of tentacular cities, not even being conscious that humanity is putting the planet – and itself – at risk.

 

 

The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. Close to half of the world’s population, that is 3.5 billion people, now lives in cities, and this number is expected to double by 2050. Although cities today represent only 2% of the total land on planet Earth, they also account for:  

  • - 70% of greenhouse gas emissions;
  • - 70% of global waste;
  • - over 60% of global energy consumption;
  • - and 70% of the global economy (GDP).

 

But awareness of long-term climate change and depletion of natural resources is trumped by a much more immediate danger, that of social turmoil, if governments don't offer the necessary infrastructure to pull populations out of poverty quickly enough.

Nowhere is the rise of inequality clearer than in cities, where wealthy communities coexist alongside poor neighborhoods. City-dwellers’ growing demands and purchasing power not only put more pressure on the planet’s land, waters and climate, but contrast heavily with high concentrations of poverty.

Yet, and as surprising as it may seem, rural exodus increases average wealth in most countries. It was observed that immigrants arriving in cities manage to climb up the social ladder in only two generations. However, this requires further commitment from governments and local authorities alike to invest in new infrastructure, such as building millions of homes.

Now, the challenge is to change the way these accommodations are built. Skyscrapers could be made with vastly improved insulating materials, smart electric storage and management systems, efficient lighting and heating and cooling systems which would allow them to save up to 80% of their energy consumption and to produce the rest thanks to renewable sources.  

This applies to new constructions, but existing ones could be renovated with the same modern clean technologies in a very profitable way, thereby creating of millions of additional jobs.

Consequently, if traditional models of city development can burden us into congestion, sprawl, and inefficient resource use, well-planned and efficient growth of cities can provide a better quality of life for citizens.

The reality is that cities today – as catalysts of change and development – have the potential to usher a new era of well-being, resource efficiency and economic growth.

That is why we must change the way we talk about development issues. In particular, that is why we must change the way we talk about the environmental concerns. The challenges of the 21st century – such as urban growth – will only be solved if we approach them from a “logical” and not and “eco-logical” standpoint.  

So, let’s talk about existing solutions rather than intangible problems. To go from words to action, we must ask our leaders for a legal framework that enforces new concrete solutions thanks to the replacement of old inefficient systems by modern clean technologies. Otherwise, nothing will happen because of the weight of old habits and ways of thinking.

Fortunately, a more positive and solution-oriented narrative is already making its way in global forums. Habitat III, that is taking take place in Quito this week, is the first global UN summit on urbanization since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

 

 

While the conference offers a unique opportunity to discuss the important challenges of how urbanization can shape the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change, it also proposes the adoption of a New Urban Agenda as a roadmap for the next 20 years.

All across the field of sustainable development, we find cities – that is to say local authorities – taking the lead and setting more ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emissions than their governments. One example is the C40 initiative, now in its tenth year. It connects more than 80 of the world’s greatest cities, representing over 600 million people and one quarter of the global economy.   

Let’s support this new impetus and highlight the benefits created by energy efficiency rather than the costs of protecting the environment – this will attract investors looking for profit instead of resigned donators.

Let’s show that a transition to clean technology will serve our own generation, not only future ones, at every link of the chain from manufacturers to consumers, as well as the politicians who supported them.

The cities of the future will be big since nothing will be able to hinder their expansion, but they could be clean if we understand quickly enough that energy efficiency represents a new worldwide market, a new industrial revolution, capable of boosting sustainable development and economic growth.

 

Bertrand Piccard

Initiator, Chairman and Pilot of Solar Impulse

Blog published in partnership with Caran d'Ache

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