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 smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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