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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.