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Can UK cities outsmart climate change?

14 min

With every new wildfire or natural disaster that wreaks havoc in a different corner of the world, public attention shifts more and more towards the escalating threat of global warming. In recent weeks, more than 1,000 climate change protesters were arrested as part of strikes designed to bring central London to a halt. With the issue now coming to a head in the UK, it’s time to start considering what role modern technology can play in averting a disaster, argue Lukas Ertl of United Smart Cities and David Reilly of The Carbon Trust

In a public interest scale of 1 to 100, with 100 representing peak global popularity, the term ‘climate change’ was trending at a mere 7 just five years ago, according to Google’s recorded search trends. There were modest increases since then, most notably in November 2016, when the term’s search popularity reached 62 – the highest it had ever been. Last month, it hit 100.

Amazon fires aside, realistically speaking, we probably have Greta Thunberg to thank for that. The 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist who skyrocketed to fame after a solo strike last year was recently nominated for the Nobel Prize, in recognition of her role as the universal representation of youth’s revolt against lethargic global warming policymaking by governments the world over. Her speeches, notoriously punctuated with sharp criticism against the very adults watching her – as was the case in the World Economic Forum in Davos, when she told leaders “our house is on fire” – have been watched by billions of people who, like Greta, also want to know: how dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’?

She is certainly right about that: reversing today’s alarming global warming trends will require much more than just empty promises from national governments (or indeed vows to actively withdraw existing promises, as demonstrated by President Donald Trump), insufficient carbon-neutrality targets, or pesky plastic straw bans.

The United Nations, for one, is doing its part. From October this year, its existing United Smart Cities programme will expand to cover all 15 of the UN’s specialised agencies as part of a rebrand to become the United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC) – putting sustainability at the absolute heart of what any smart city should seek to achieve.

“Smart only works with sustainable. Therefore, it’s necessary to implement it in the wording. We are now acting on a much larger, global scale,” explained Lukas Ertl, United Smart Cities’ head of communications. “Of course, the environment has to be supported in any project we do and in any city we act within. But what it really means is that it’s this collaboration – or should I say co-creation – of projects between the different stakeholders to really ensure a sustainable implementation of projects.”

No city is an island

The U4SSC programme is responsible for evaluating how smart a given city truly is against an extensive rubric of 108 KPIs across the economy, society and culture, and the environment. Tracking these datasets annually allows the UN to paint a changing picture of how cities around the world are improving their levels of investment in technology-enabled urban projects. “We also collaborate strongly with the private sector to be aware of the latest technologies, such as in the mobility or energy sectors, which goes far beyond just saying ‘We need to invest in renewable energy.’ It’s about the system behind it; it’s about connecting available resources,” added Lukas.

Decarbonising the transport sector begins with policymakers placing public transport at the very heart of their climate actions plan

“Every city is an individual organism, and we have to focus on their activities. Out of this evaluation, we can see the cities that are performing well against, say, decarbonisation, so we don’t need to invest our resources there because we can see that the city can manage by itself. We can then focus on other issues, for example in the mobility or construction sectors. But if there’s a necessity to help or support, we can focus on that as well.”

Lukas chose Vienna – incidentally the city where U4SSC is based – as the global frontrunner when it comes to investment in environmental sustainability, alongside Amsterdam and key Nordic cities such as Helsinki and Oslo. Indeed, the Energy Globe World Award, to which more than 800 initiatives from nearly 200 countries are submitted in the hopes of being crowned the world’s environmental pioneer (and whose guestlist has included everyone from Kofi Annan to Alanis Morrisette) will this year be held in Espoo, Finland, after the city was elected the world’s most sustainable by the United Nations.

“I think these Nordic cities are now creating more and more awareness around the fact that they need to change dramatically, and not just step by step – otherwise, there’s no way back,” argued Lukas. “For that reason, especially in Norway, they have quite a motivated level of activity. For example, they’ll say, ‘If we just want to have electric cars, we need to tax all the other vehicles.’ They are finding ways to support the whole transformation.”

And it must be working. In a 2018 article for The Guardian, journalist Harvey Jones pointed out that while electric cars are increasingly noticeable in most capital cities, “the sheer number in Oslo and throughout the rest of [Norway] can surprise visitors.” Last year, their battery-powered cars outsold traditionally-fuelled vehicles for the first time, with the city – named the European Green Capital of 2019 – now hoping that all cars sold by 2025 will be electric. To motivate drivers, the Scandinavian city has waived registration and sales taxes for buyers, who do not need to pay road tolls and can access bus lanes.

From trains and buses to robotic river boats

Transport is indeed one of the best quick fixes for environmental concerns across the globe. During the United Nations Secretary-General Climate Action Summit in New York earlier this year, for example, over 100 organisations came together to commit to decarbonisation, with the International Association of Public Transport calling on companies to accelerate investment in public transport. “Decarbonising the transport sector begins with policymakers placing public transport at the very heart of their climate actions plan,” said Mohamed Mezghani, UITP’s secretary general. “There is no way we can fight climate change without collaborating for sustainable transport solutions.”

Naturally, when you think of sustainable transport, you’ll probably focus on buses, trams, and railways – they are at the leading edge of innovation, after all – but some cities are taking it a step further. In Amsterdam, MIT teamed up with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions to develop ‘Roboats,’ or self-driving, self-transforming robotic platforms that have made history as the world’s first fleet of autonomous boats. As well as functioning as on-demand transportation through the city’s waterways, the modular boat can shapeshift to form temporary structures such as footbridges, stages, floating buses and taxis, and even pop-up markets. Smart algorithms also allow the Roboats to disassemble themselves after a set period of time, or stick around and act as mobile sensors that gather environmental and infrastructure data in Amsterdam (the latest iteration of the technology comes with a variety of sensors, thrusters, microcontrollers, GPS modules, cameras, and LIDAR equipment.)

“This was amazing to see in action, and to be able to contribute to,” recounted Lukas. “There are so many complex things and regulations behind it – you can’t call them ‘boats’ because boats require other regulations, for example. It’s all really interesting.”

The UK’s story so far

The U4SSC’s reach in the UK isn’t too extensive yet, with the group in talks with only a handful of cities at present, including Liverpool, Bristol and London. But that doesn’t mean all of our other cities are at a standstill, with their genuine concern over the environment perhaps best epitomised by the recent string of Extinction Rebellion protests held across the UK’s major cities in the past few weeks, where activists were joined by thousands of civilians.

The Carbon Trust, for example, has a decades-long history of working alongside central and local governments to improve the national energy efficiency and decarbonisation agenda. “Whilst we have a dedicated cities team, the activities touch every part of the company; different pockets of different skills that we bring into our work,” said David Reilly, director of cities and regions at the organisation. “We cover a broad range, from awareness-raising and ambition-raising through to developing strategies and pulling in more technical or financial skills to help identify or develop low-carbon projects and support implementation. Our focus has always been on the decarbonisation side of things, which the smart city agenda is inherently linked to.

“And, particularly over the last six to eight months, the climate emergency has got a lot of momentum behind it. We’ve been absolutely inundated with clients and former clients asking for help to develop new strategies that can help them accelerate and ratchet up action on the net-zero emissions agenda and other similar things,” he continued.

“Because of this climate emergency, and because of the real momentum that has built up around the Committee on Climate Change report, what we’re beginning to see is that local government in particular is looking beyond the conventional technologies to see what can be done. I’m seeing a shift for the first time at the level of ambition that is out there.”

But overall, despite the uptick in organisations scrambling to come up with more ambitious proposals that could help reverse climate change trends, it’s all moving a little bit too slow.

Some, such as England’s 10 combined authorities, might be further ahead than other councils (for example, by officially declaring a climate emergency or by creating job roles exclusively dedicated to deploying eco-friendly technology). Packed with more resources than your average local government, many combined authorities have developed isolated strategies – around transport, energy, decarbonisation, or air quality – that they are now trying to bring together so that all parts of the organisation can be aligned with each other.

Yet there are some examples of low-hanging fruit that prove not all local authorities have been taking the issue seriously enough: for example, public buildings lacking any LED lighting or efficient heating systems. According to The Carbon Trust, not a single one of the near-100 councils in the UK that the organisation works with has completely replaced the dated, energy-consuming infrastructure in their estate with more up-to-date technologies such as smart meters. In theory, these changes would be fairly easy wins that could be rolled out in the short term as part of a longer-term vision.

I’m seeing a shift for the first time at the level of ambition that is out there

“What we tend to see is a concentration of intimate, easier-to-do, and maybe more cost-effective solutions now,” explained David. “But at the same time, they’re beginning to recognise that there’s a huge amount of new technology and data-driven solutions that can enable the smart city agenda alongside the decarbonisation one. The scale of roll-out is not as fast, though; it needs to be in order to hit the ambitions that have been declared.”

As the director of the Trust’s cities work, though, David acknowledged that austerity policies have played a significant role in today’s fairly negative status quo. “It’s no secret that they’ve been hit fairly badly,” he accepted. “I’ve been working at the Carbon Trust for about eight years now, and over the time I’ve been around, we’ve seen funding for local authorities for things like energy and decarbonisation – things that aren’t necessarily statutory – cut back a bit. Resources and staff numbers have been cut back in some authorities, and funds get diverted into the core activities around housing, waste, education – all the things councils are obliged to deliver. That has had a big impact.”

Indeed, after an assessment by charity Friends of the Earth found that councils were doing “far too little” to tackle climate change in the UK, the Local Government Association hit back with reports that national targets would never be met without access to long-term funding and more devolved powers. David Renard, the group’s environment spokesperson, also called for a dedicated joint national taskforce led by councils to coordinate more direct action.

David Reilly recognised that there are pockets of success led by the UK Government, from the Clean Growth Strategy to their promotion of local energy strategies led by LEPs – yet further intervention might be necessary if we are to meet the highly ambitious carbon neutrality targets set out by cities, which far exceed the national 2050 target specified by government. “Some of the right steps have been taken, but the drive and the funding behind it could certainly be increased in order to really scale things up,” the Carbon Trust director claimed. “National government needs to set out the right policy framework and to put in place the right strategy, as well as roll out 5G broadband and other enabling infrastructures that are needed in order to create those markets. Local government must also play a role in driving forward this for the localities. But you can’t say it’s all down to local or national government; businesses and citizens have a role to play, too.”

Going it alone is sometimes very costly, risky, and time-consuming

While the UK is well regarded as an economy generally focused on technology and innovation, David argued that actually deploying these new solutions, or finding the opportunities in which to trial them, is a different story. “If you look at Singapore, for example, they use the city as a living lab; they very much encourage and invite new innovators to test certain things and to trial tha

t level of innovation,” he pointed out. “The UK is at the forefront of some of that innovation, but we’re just not as good at supplying our own solutions and providing the opportunity to deploy those as perhaps other places are.”

Some UK cities have, rather ironically, resorted to the EU to pull together technical and commercial support for low-carbon projects. But some, especially in Wales and Scotland, have taken to working collaboratively in order to bridge their current capacity gap by sharing resources with one another, whether that’s management skills, technical expertise, or procurement assistance.

A network of like-minded smart cities

Take that mindset and blow it up on a much wider scale and you could have a working solution to the UK’s capacity crunch – for example, by developing a comprehensive ‘smart cities network,’ where all cities can share best practice and guidance in a single portal or resources hub. That is already done with tremendous success by groups such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a team of 94 cities around the world that together represent one-twelfth of the world’s population and one-quarter of the global economy.

“Going it alone is sometimes very costly, risky, and time-consuming – especially when it comes to large investments and large infrastructure,” agreed Reilly. “Cooperation is definitely something that can take the burden off; sharing investments and innovation and trying out new technologies all helps to learn from others and exchange ideas.

“The UK already has a variety of different networks that address climate change; sometimes it’s best to build off of existing networks rather than reinvent new ones, especially where things are so closely linked. But in general terms, networks and alliances can be really effective in driving change and making sure things happen quicker and better.

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