Cities – those grey, urban, concrete structures – could be the green centres of the modern world. Rolling hills and lush fields may be actually green, but in terms of contributing to a sustainable future, quiet countryside towns may have a far smaller impact.
Of course, urban areas contribute more to the degradation of the environment, emitting fumes and using resources at a far greater rate than less densely populated areas. Yet equally, city citizens use more public transport than rural dwellers, have the opportunity to recycle more and the ability to walk between places. Denser living also allows for more ‘sharing’, albeit often unconsciously, of resources.
A 2007 report from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) looked at 11 major cities on four continents, including London, Tokyo, New York and Rio de Janeiro, and found that city dwellers had lower greenhouse gas emissions than the per capita average for the country. A Londoner in 2004 emitted the equivalent of 6.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide, compared with 11.19 for the UK average, and New Yorkers were found to register footprints of 7.1 tonnes each, less than a third of the US average of 23.92 tonnes.
Cities have to be the place where sustainable futures are developed. In 2007, the global population tipped to being predominantly urban, and this is only going to grow – by 2050 we are going to be up to 70% urban.
It’s not necessarily about building eco-cities. As important as it is to focus on the future, things have to happen now. There are around 170 eco-city projects around the world, with definitions varying, but it seems that many have failed, and some may be sustainable for the environment, but not for the people who live in them.
Dongtan, one of 10 eco-city projects in China, was a miserable failure, not balancing idealism with realism. Many of these cities are without hospitals, shops, and, therefore, people.
What it is about is developing initiatives that allow people to live the lives they are used to, but that facilitate the opportunity to make changes that are not so dramatic they become unattractive and thus are not committed to, but do make a difference.
The majority of eco-friendly projects and sustainability initiatives are coming out of cities. This is partly a result of the sheer number of people. As Steve Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From and Leo Hollis in his more recent book Cities Are Good For You explain, cities are wonderfully creative places due to numbers and the connections between those numbers – fertile breeding ground for great ideas.
Although schemes such as London’s commitment to hybrid buses (with 600 expected to be in use by 2016) or the $2.6m awarded by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to organisations with plans for capturing stormwater runoff as part of the Flushing and Gowanus Green Infrastructure Grant Initiative have significant and large-scale results (as well as cutting costs for local governments), the real inspiration comes from grassroots initiatives.
Here are three of my favourite city schemes, all proving that cities are good for us.
Created and run by “the Generators” – the name given to the young people involved with the project , this initiative simply involves taking an old skip and filling it with soil to grow fruit and vegetables, which they then serve at their own Skip Cafe, sell to local businesses, including the Guardian’s café, and turn into jams and chutneys.
The Hague is, as befits the capital of Europe, a leader in this field. Recognising that encouraging more people to live sustainably needs to have fun at its core, the city has organised a gardening flash mob, where more than 150 people turned up to ‘green the street’.
Living roofs and walls are growing in cities all around the world, and it’s not hard to see why, as they make so much sense. Making the best of underused space, providing green locations in areas where very few people have access to a garden, improving air quality, and looking great – they tick all the boxes.
Francesca Baker is curious about life and enjoys writing about it. A freelance journalist, event organiser, and minor marketing whizz, she has plenty of ideas, and likes to share them. She writes about music, literature, life, travel, art, London, and other general musings, and organises events that contain at least one of the above. You can find out more at www.andsoshethinks.co.uk.
Photo: Arsel via freeimages
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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