Smart cities needed to save our planet
By Dennis Pamlin (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-06 07:48
So far most of the focus in the climate discussions has been on big polluting industries. The reason for that is we have approached climate change as a problem. This perspective is leading us toward trade conflicts with entities with unsustainable consumption levels and blaming those with high greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting industries. This could be avoided if we shift to a solution perspective and focus on the opportunities for cities.
Last year was the first time in human history when more than half of the world's population was living in urban, not rural, areas. This trend will continue and in 40 years 70 percent of the world's population will be living in cities. China will lead this development in many ways, with 70 percent of its population living in cities in about 30 years.
Cities are the main destination for investments and centers of innovations. And whether we will destroy or save the planet depends on toward where those investments and innovations are directed: high- or low- carbon development.
To turn cities into solution providers we must move beyond the simplified perspective that have dominated the climate change debate so far, especially in the West. The focus on problems has resulted in a situation where almost all of the work is invested in house-keeping measures to reduce direct GHG emissions in cities. This is not unimportant; it is just one part of a much bigger picture.
A strategy to support low-carbon city development must include at least four factors. We need cities that can do all things well, but right now we also need cities that focus on one of the factors and become world leaders in it.
The most obvious area, and where almost all focus is today, is direct emissions from cities. Cleaning your house is always a good thing. Cities should develop strategies to reduce direct emissions from buildings and transport and all other significant sources. What is important is setting targets and formulating strategies that actually reduce GHG emissions and not just move them to another place.
Ensuring continued focus on energy efficiency and new smart system solutions instead of only looking at decreased use of coal and oil is important. Projects like Shanghai's initiative of building smart buildings is very interesting and would help create a low-carbon 21st century infrastructure based on broadband communications instead of roads and airports.
The second area that must be addressed to ensure that GHG emission problems are not just moved from one place to another is "embedded emissions".
Embedded emissions are those that have been released in order to produce something. If a city is moving a steel plant because it emits huge volumes of carbon but keeps on using as much steel as before then the problem has not been solved; it has only been moved.
Many cities in the rich world that talk about low-carbon development ignore the goods with significant amounts of embedded carbon they import. Research shows emissions a country like Sweden is responsible for would be double if its imports are included. The reason is that Sweden, like other Western countries, exports less-carbon intensive goods than it imports.
The Chinese government has issued regulations to discourage export of energy intensive products and support a low-carbon lifestyle, offering a unique opportunity for its cities to review their imports and exports from a climate perspective.
A very important but still not very well known climate aspect in cities is export of low-carbon solutions. A city is an active part of the global economy, and since there is an urgent need for low-carbon solutions it must support companies that export them.
An export perspective allows cities to focus on companies providing low-carbon solutions and how promoting a low-carbon development can create jobs. Obviously there is a link between direct GHG emissions and the export of low-carbon solutions. If a market is created for new smart solutions in a city, the companies that provide them can first grow in the domestic market and then become important exporters of low-carbon solutions.
If cities become providers of low-carbon solutions they can become "climate positive". Such cities would contribute to more emission reductions from the use of the solutions they export than the GHG they emit. In the future, climate-positive cities could become the most important solution providers on the planet.
Baoding in Hebei province may be well known for its potential to become the world's leading climate-positive city, but it is not the only Chinese city that holds such a promise. Dezhou in Shandong province is one. Products made in these cities are supplied to the domestic as well as the international markets.
Finally, it is important for cities to have a strategy that support multifunctional solutions. While climate change is important, it is not the only challenge we face.
Our efforts to reduce GHG emissions should also help solve other problems.
Solar solutions, for example, can help provide solutions for desalination plants and farming. Some interesting projects are in progress in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, and Suntech is developing integrated solutions that allow desalination and cleaning of water at the same time as providing clean and renewable energy. These solutions would be good not just for the climate, but also increase food production, reduce poverty and help avoid conflicts.
Let's hope Chinese cities become a strong voice for a solution agenda. A lot is already going on in China, but these initiatives still need a stronger international voice.
The author is adviser to various companies, governments and NGOs.
我们希望中国能够成为发展低碳城市的强力支持者和践行者。尽管中国已经在这一领域做了相当多的工作，但这些做法和计划依然需要更好地向国际社会进行传播和推广，让所有国家都充分意识到低碳型发展的重要意义。（作者为世界自然基金会顾问 Dennis Pamlin 编辑 裴培 张峰）