Four technological innovations that can help reduce urban carbon emissions

A 2009 climate change protest in Washington DC. Image: Getty.

It is estimated that the majority of people around the world now live in urban areas – and the global urban population is expected to grow approximately 1.84 per cent every year in the near future.Such growth is a key driver behind the move to “smart cities”, that aim to improve quality of life and efficiency of transport, energy provision and healthcare through technology.

But as urban areas grow, greenhouse gas emissions are likely to grow along with them.  With last year’s talks in Paris agreeing stringent new emissions goals, there is a great need to ensure that, as our cities become smarter, they also become greener.

Advances in renewable energy, electric vehicles and hybrid technology have led to significant reductions in emissions and waste already; and further improvements are already being made in biofuels, organic photovoltaics and hydrogen cars. The recent “Decarbonathon” competition, run by the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders initiative, alongside ENGIE and the National Physical Laboratory, set out to find the most promising new ideas that could reduce CO2 emissions in cities, and selected the five technologies that it thinks holds the most promise.

Mobiliteam is one such innovator. It has developed an air booster that reduces the energy consumption of electric vehicles by improving the efficiency of air conditioning systems, whilst having no effect on the passenger’s comfort. Even in cool climates, air conditioning accounts for 5-10 per cent of a vehicle’s fuel consumption, meaning that there are economic as well as environmental incentives for manufacturers to fit the technology.

Another, Bynd, is working to develop a car-pooling app that, unlike existing car-pooling services, is aimed at the regular commuter. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, 91 per cent of car commutes are single passenger journeys. Bynd aims to work with companies to develop an app that allows staff within the same business (or another nearby) to combine journeys and reduce the number of car journeys taken in cities.

TEBS – the “Traffic Energy Bar System” – takes a different approach. Instead of attempting to make cars more efficient, or reduce road traffic, it makes use of busy roads to generate energy for use elsewhere.

TEBS is a system installed across areas where a high volume of traffic is slowing down, in which bars are pressed down by the wheels of each car as it moves over them, creating an up and down motion that generates electricity. It uses the waste energy from the cars slowing down, and harnesses it to power other systems in the city that require electricity.

The last innovation recognised as having big potential, Mutum, aims to reduce industrial and residential emissions. An idea borne out of the sharing economy, it aims to reduce overconsumption by making it easier to share things with others.

A typical electrical drill is only used for12 minutes during its lifetime: Mutum aims to show how such objects can be borrowed rather than bought. Overconsumption creates wasteful industrial processes through over-manufacturing, so reducing these emissions will help lower urban energy demand and subsequent GHG emissions.

These are just a few examples of the technology already out there to reduce emissions. But there is no silver bullet: if we are to reach the ambitious pledges set through the COP21 talks, more must be done, and new green technologies and continued innovation needs to be encouraged.


The problem is that emerging green technologies like these can often struggle to secure investment, severely hampering their development and market uptake. Current VC investment in clean technology stands at $4.8bn globally, far below the peak in 2008 of $12.3bn .

On top of that, subsidies in the energy sector often create unfair market conditions by favouring established technologies, many of which are contributing to climate change rather than helping to address it. The International Energy Agency assessed the total amount of subsidies to both fossil fuel and clean energy industries in 2013 and it found that the former received four times more than the latter.

Building confidence in new technologies is crucial to securing investment and market uptake. The National Physical Laboratory , the UK’s National Measurement Institute, verifies new technologies, helping them to prove that they do what they say they do. Having independent third-party validation is vital, helping emerging technologies bridge the gap until standards evolve and secure the confidence required to accelerate their commercialisation.  NPL is helping the winners of the Decarbonathon through such practical support.

The Paris talks went some way towards tackling these barriers to innovation, too. Mission Innovation saw 20 countries, including the UK, pledging to double cleantech R&D over the next five years. Around the same time the Breakthrough Energy Coalition was also launched, seeing the world’s leading tech giants joining forces to invest in high risk, early stage clean tech companies.

With new technologies such as those above being developed, we now have the best opportunity to make smart, green cities. By coupling these increases in funding for low-carbon technologies with practical support for the entrepreneurs and companies developing them, new technologies can become part of our cities, reducing our emissions and paving the way for smarter, greener, urban life.  

Jane Burston is head of climate and environment at the National Physical Laboratory.

 
 
 
 

The stubborn ‘nail houses’ protesting China’s rapid urbanisation

A half-demolished house in Wenling, in eastern China's Zhejiang province. Image: Getty.

A single house balancing precariously in the middle of a construction site may seem like a doomed and fragile structure. But in China, these residences have become a potent symbol of resistance. Known as “dingzihu” in Chinese – which can be translated as “nail house” or “nail household” – buildings like this represent those who, like stubborn nails, defy state-ordered evictions and demolitions by refusing to vacate their properties. The Conversation

Nail houses came to global attention in spectacular images published in the lead up to the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. But the practice began earlier, when homeowners in China were granted inviolable rights to their privately-owned property following two important legal changes in 2004 and 2007.

Nail houses have come to possess a special meaning in a country that perceives urbanisation as a vital political, economic and ideological project. Local economies depend heavily on investment in infrastructure and buildings, and growing middle class consumption is seen as the next engine for China’s economic development. What’s more, urban citizens are considered to be more civilised, or have a higher level of “suzhi” (cultural attainment), and have better access to public services such as education, health care and housing.

Going up. Image: Ioan Sameli/Flickr/creative commons.

But building and expanding cities requires big tracts of vacant land for large-scale developments. This results in the demolition of existing homes, neighbourhoods and villages, which don’t fit the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) vision of an urban future.


Courts and compensation

Compensation for families whose homes are on the brink of demolition is always a major source of dispute. Offers are based on current valuations of properties, which is likely to be far lower than any of the residences which replace them. This means that displacement is often inevitable, leading to broken communities and psychological damage from stress and violence and compelling families to demand financial redress.

Petitions by residents face limited success in court. The heavy presence of the CPC in every sphere of social and economic life makes it extremely challenging for residents to make successful claims against the state. Court decisions are rarely made against governments, especially in areas where aspiring local governments have removed regulatory and physical barriers to development.

So instead, nail households endure power cuts, limited services and threats of forced eviction and demolition, in order to gain as much compensation from the government or developers as possible, to ensure their own survival in an increasingly unequal society. Resisting families are often stigmatised as “selfish” for trying to protect their own interests, at the expense of a greater good for their neighbours and the wider public.

Government authorities also feed this perception with posters, like this one from Guangzhou, which reads: “To protect the interest of homeowners, never surrender to nail houses.”

Rebel against the rebels! Image: Hyun Bang Shin/author provided.

Yet this kind of impasse is not inevitable. Nail households might not go to such extreme measures if they were consulted and provided with informed choices to upgrade their homes and neighbourhoods, without demolition. Families do not become nail households overnight. Nor is a nail house the outcome of some intrinsic “selfishness” on the part of the protesters.

Rather, families often endure long-term harassment and violence, and succumb to despair when they are unable to resolve disputes. Many residents start out by conducting persistent negotiations with local governments or developers, becoming “nail house embryos”. Over time, feelings harden and residents become more determined, until they are willing to take extreme actions to keep their homes.

Under pressure

Much of this can be put down to the process. When a neighbourhood is slated for redevelopment, residents face extreme pressure to move: the local government in charge would organise various bureaus – including public security, planning and propaganda offices – to work closely with neighbourhood leaders, to enforce the timely eviction of local residents. Various financial incentives, as well as direct threats and peer pressure, are designed to speed up the process of eviction.

A nail household in Tianjin, north-east China. Image: Hyun Bang Shin/author provided.

In this context, nail houses symbolise the inequality and unfairness prevalent in contemporary China. Yet a greater awareness of property rights among urban citizens may empower them so that they are no longer subject to whims of the authoritarian state and single-minded for-profit businesses. Enhanced rights consciousness would also enable them to demand for greater participation in urban planning processes that often exclude the voices of citizens.

If governments, developers and other Chinese citizens can acknowledge the plight of nail households, rather than rejecting and alienating them, it could lead to a fairer system for all. Then, no longer will nail houses stand as towering tombstones for vanished communities.

Hyun Bang Shin is associate professor in geography & urban studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.