We can cut emissions in half by 2040 – but only if we build smarter cities

Shanghai's Jinmao Tower, under construction in 2009. Image: Getty.

As a planet, we have some serious climate targets to meet in the coming years. The Paris Agreement, signed by 192 countries, set an aspirational goal of limiting global warming to 1.5ᵒC. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, set to be achieved by 2030, commit the world to “take urgent action” on climate change.

All this will require ridding our economies of carbon. If we’re to do so, we need to completely rethink our cities.

The UN’s peak climate body showed in its most recent report that cities are crucial to preventing drastic climate change. Already, cities contribute 71 per cent to 76 per cent to energy-related carbon emissions.

In the Global South, energy consumption and emissions in urban areas tend to be way higher than those in rural areas. Future population growth is expected to take place almost entirely in cities and smaller urban settlements. Unfortunately, those smaller centres generally lack the capacity to properly address climate change.

China’s “New-type Urbanisation Policy” aims to raise its city populations from 54.2 per cent in 2012 to 60 per cent in 2020. This will mean building large urban infrastructure projects, and investing trillions of dollars into new developments. Meanwhile, India’s sheer volume of urbanisation and infrastructure needs are phenomenal.

The problem with infrastructure

Infrastructure contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in two ways: through construction (for example, the energy footprints of cement, steel and aluminium used in the building process) and through the things that go on to use that infrastructure (for example, cars or trains using new roads or tracks).

In a recent study, my colleagues and I have shown that the design of today’s transportation systems, buildings and other infrastructure will largely determine tomorrow’s CO2 emissions.

Less of this, please. Image: Getty.

But by building climate-smart urban infrastructure and buildings, we could cut future emissions in half from 2040 onwards. We could reduce future emissions by ten gigatonnes per year: almost the same quantity currently being emitted by the United States, Europe and India put together (11 gigatonnes).

We assessed cities’ potential to reduce emissions on the basis of three criteria: the emissions savings following upgrades to existing infrastructure; emissions savings from using new, energy-efficient infrastructure; and the additional emissions generated by construction.

In established cities, we found that considerable progress can be made through refurbishment of existing infrastructure. But the highest potential is offered by construction of new, energy-efficient projects from the beginning. The annual reductions that could be achieved by 2040 by using new infrastructure is three to four times higher than that of upgrading existing roads or buildings.

With this in mind, governments worldwide must guide cities towards low-carbon infrastructure development and green investment.

Urbanisation is about more than megacities

Significant opportunities exist to promote high-density living, build urban set-ups that mix residential, work and leisure in single spaces, and create better connectivity within and between cities. The existing window of opportunity to act is narrowing over time, as the Global South develops rapidly. It should not be missed.

Besides global megacities such as Shanghai and Mumbai, smaller cities must also be a focus for lowering emissions. Studies have shown a paradox for these places: the capacity for governance and finance are lower in the smaller cities, despite the fact that the majority of future urban populations will grow there, and they will expand quicker than their larger cousins.

We must give up on our obsession with megacities. Without building proper capacity in mid- and small-sized cities to address climate solutions, we cannot meet our climate goals.

Perhaps most important is raising the level of ambition in the existing climate policies in cities of all sizes, making them far-reaching, inclusive and robust. Despite the rhetoric, the scale of real change on ground from existing cities climate actions are unproven and unclear.

Existing cities’ climate mitigation plans and policies, such as in Tokyo, London, Bangkok, and activities promoted by networks such as ICLEI, C40, Covenant of Mayors for Energy and Environment are a good start; they must be appreciated but further strengthened.

But, to further support these good ideas, the world urgently needs support measures for urban mitigation from local to global levels together with a tracking framework and agreed set of indicators for measuring the extent of progress towards low-carbon future.

Only if we start with cities, big and small, will we manage to limit warming to 1.5°C.The Conversation

Shobhakar Dhakal is associate professor at the Asian Institute of Technology.

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


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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