Britain’s cities could save billions of pounds, while saving the planet, too

Eco-homes built on The Wintles estate in eco-town Bishop's Castle. Image: Getty.

National governments have historically led efforts to address climate change; setting the targets, planning the actions and then succeeding (or often failing) to achieve climate action goals. But increasingly, local, city and regional authorities are stepping up to tackle the challenge. Municipal governments are setting climate targets; corporations, investors and pension funds are funding local initiatives; and communities and individuals are driving the shift to a lower-carbon future.

Local actions have the potential to save as much as £7bn each year across the 50 largest cities in the UK – that’s equivalent to £300 per year for every person in each of these cities – and create more than 90,000 years of extra employment. A range of measures could deliver striking savings for individual households (£2.3bn annually), schools, hospitals, offices and other non-residential buildings (£1.2bn annually) and industry (£510m annually).

With the assistance of Rafael Luviano Ortiz, our team at the University of Leeds have come up with emissions projections and action plans for every local authority, local enterprise partnership, region and country in the UK, to support further action from this diverse coalition of governments, business and citizens. This work has been carried out as part of the Can-Do Cities initiative – a model designed to be used by other cities and communities, to develop their own climate and energy strategies.

Huge potential

Our work shows that a wide range of actions can be taken to complement national policy and reduce emissions even further – all while delivering economic returns. Exploiting opportunities for climate action at a regional or local level could help cities to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 23 per cent, over and above the reductions happening through measures that have been planned already.

Extra measures taken by cities can cut emissions even further. Image: Andrew Sudmant/University of Leeds/author provided.

What’s more, these measures can yield further social, economic and environmental benefits if they are effectively implemented. For instance, in Leeds, Yorkshire, investments in energy efficiency and retrofits in homes could reduce energy bills more than £80m pounds annually, helping the poorest households to afford to keep warm in the winter.

In London, investments in low-carbon industrial processes could save the entire industrial sector more than £161m annually, improving competitiveness and freeing up funds to hire new workers and invest in new technologies.

Meanwhile, in Birmingham, investments in commercial buildings, hospitals, schools and local shops to upgrade heating and cooling systems, appliances and lighting could save £46m annually, helping small business owners expand and public services improve. And in Glasgow, investments in low carbon actions across each of these sectors could generate 2,400 years of employment: the equivalent of 240 full-time jobs for ten years.

Priorities in order

To make this information readily accessible, the Can-Do Cities team have produced reports and generated league tables of the most cost and carbon-effective actions, revealing opportunities for low carbon investment for every locality, city or region in the UK. Below, you can see the league tables for Leeds.

The most effective ways of reducing carbon emissions for the city of Leeds. Image: Andrew Sudmant/University of Leeds/author provided.

The most cost-effective forms of climate action for the city of Leeds. Image: Andrew Sudmant/University of Leeds/author provided.

Of course, concerted efforts must to be made to actually realise these benefits. Significant investments are needed. In a typical local authority, the total cost of low carbon measures across all sectors is about 1 per cent of the Gross Value Added (GVA) each year, for the next ten years. Even though these measures provide financial returns, they would benefit from support from central government.

Actions also need to be coordinated: land-use and transport developments must be planned with neighbouring cities and regions, in order to maximise the benefits.

The need for climate action must be embedded in the decisions made by local governments, businesses and citizens. Homes and offices are rarely designed with climate change as a primary consideration, and the same goes for transport networks and industrial plants. But the types of buildings and roads constructed today will influence the level of emissions coming from communities far into the future.

Climate action needs to be sustained, while adapting to advances in technology, which promise to provide new ways of reducing emissions, and may significantly lower the cost of existing options. For example, the uptake of electric vehicles could have a dramatic impact on emissions, if prices continue to fall and the grid continues to become less reliant on energy from fossil fuels. And while batteries and small-scale renewables such as solar and wind power are still a relatively costly way to store and produce electricity, advances seem imminent.

The ConversationThese kinds of changes don’t undercut social, economic or environmental development; in fact, they contribute towards it. The analysis from our Can-do Cities team shows that reducing emissions can often lead to more liveable homes, more productive offices, improved urban mobility, and financial savings for industry: just the sort of improvements which all cities are looking to achieve.

Andrew Sudmant, Research Fellow in the Economics of Climate Smart Cities research programme, University of Leeds; Andy Gouldson, Professor of Environmental Policy and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Interdisciplinary Research), University of Leeds, and Joel Millward-Hopkins, Post Doctoral Researcher in Sustainability, University of Leeds.

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


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.