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Climate Change Is Real. But Here’s How We Can Protect Our Cities From It

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“The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge. If we can deal with this in the right way and have this informal mechanism then I think we can find a way of meeting what I believe is the clear desire of our people – which is to find a way of combining rising living standards with the responsibility to protect our environment.” – Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister.

We are running out of resources – and more importantly, we are running out of time. Our needs turned into greed due to our ever-increasing demands, and we are on the verge of exhausting almost every possible resource known to us. There is a dilemma about the availability of energy in the near future- the energy to run our houses, our vehicles, our industries and our cities.  This energy crisis has led many to think about the need of zero-carbon cities.

Why We Need To Act Sooner

Cities are the engines of growth.” – we hear this every now and then. These ‘engines’ also consume energy to run. The urban areas are the biggest consumers of natural resources and also the biggest producers of pollution all over the world.

If the planet warms up by a total of 2 degrees more than its average temperature before the Industrial Revolution, the results could be appalling. In the Paris Summit, an agreement to reduce global carbon emissions was made so that the 2-degree threshold is not crossed. The globally-averaged surface temperature in 2016 was the highest ever, since record-keeping began in 1880, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).

The major causes of global warming and climate change are the increased carbon-based energy consumption and increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – both due to human activities, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states. With our ever-growing population, our dependency on energy resources is also increasing. The more resources we burn for energy, the more carbon we produce.

Estimated population by 2050. (Source: UN Population Division)

“Global carbon (C) emissions from fossil fuel use were 9.795 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2014 (or 35.9 GtCO2 of carbon dioxide).  Fossil fuel emissions were 0.6% above emissions in 2013 and 60% above emissions in 1990 (the reference year in the Kyoto Protocol).” – according to CO2-Earth.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) quantifies the maximum carbon dioxide the world can emit and also still have a likely chance of keeping the rise in global average temperature below the two-degree threshold.  It also reports that the goal can be met if cumulative emissions (including the 535 GtC emitted by the end of 2013) do not exceed 1 trillion tonnes of carbon (PgC).  A gigatonne of carbon (1 GtC) is the same as a petagram of carbon (1 PgC).

Human-caused sources of CO2 emissions over time (fossil fuels/industry and land-use change), sinks of CO2 (land, plants, oceans and the atmosphere) All figures are in billions of tonnes of carbon per year (GtC/yr). [Source: Le Quéré, C. et al. (2016)]
Watch this video by NASA: A Year in the Life of Earth’s CO2

Zero Carbon Cities- A Viable Option

Human-induced GHG emissions are primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use. In the future, urban areas need to be powered by alternate energy resources which are efficient and recyclable.

Here, we are talking about one option of reducing emissions – conceptualising zero-carbon cities. A zero-carbon city operates entirely on renewable energy, has no carbon footprint and cannot ideally cause harm to the planet.

Significant climate anomalies in 2016. (Source:NOAA)

Efficient land-use planning and development strategies can help us reduce emissions, by providing options like mixed land-use development, decreasing travel trips, promoting public transportation and by promoting the usage of non-polluting alternate energy resources. Adopting such options will not only pave the way for sustainable development, they will also lead to lower carbon emissions.

The following suggestions can be implemented to achieve the aim of zero-carbon cities:

1. Energy 

Renewable energy resources will help in reducing the carbon footprints of cities. Using photovoltaic plants, wind turbines, solar thermal collectors, biomass sources, etc. will ensure that the cities are self-sufficient in energy.

2. Adopting the vernacular architecture using locally-available material

The local culture and climatic conditions of a place need to be kept in mind while planning. Heat islands can be avoided by the proper orientation of buildings so as to avoid direct sunlight, using cooler building materials, building shaded and narrow passageways, landscaping by using soft elements like water, plants and trees, etc. Keeping cities naturally lighted and cool will reduce the need of electricity.

Using locally-available construction materials like clay and mud can keep houses cooler, reduce the cost of transportation of building materials, minimise pollution levels and maintain the micro-climate of the place. These building materials are renewable and do not have major impacts on the environment.

3. Intelligent transport system 

Promoting walking, cycling, a public transportation running on clean energy, banning polluting vehicles, promoting battery-powered transit systems are some of the ways to achieve an ecologically-sustainable transportation system in a city. A well-planned connectivity to workplaces will lead to a reduced urban sprawl, shorter trips and a reduced dependence on car-based means of transport.

4. Promoting mixed land use 

Land use patterns are directly related to the growth of emissions. Mixing various forms of land use can make a city self-sufficient, and also make communities more inclusive for people to work and live in.

5. Promoting recycling practices

Promoting rainwater harvesting, recycling greywater for irrigation purposes, recycling and composting solid wastes are some methods to achieve the optimum use of waste resources. Waste-to-energy fuel cells, which use waste reduction and reuse processes, can also be developed.

6. Conservation and rejuvenation practices 

Spreading practices like the restoration of the damaged urban ecology, conservation of resources within cities in green spaces, lakes, ponds, and restoring the city from ‘within’ (rather than allowing it to sprawl into the hinterlands) are much required.

Conserving unused parcels of land within the city will make them more compact, thereby leaving more space for forests, wilderness and agriculture. The soil and vegetation in these places can therefore efficiently absorb carbon emissions.

7. Promoting urban agriculture 

Maintenance of community gardens, where, despite the lack of space in their own homes, a community of people can grow and consume their own food, is a must. Utilisation of roof surfaces will promote mixed land use, reduce the surface temperature leading to cooler houses and will minimise the need to transport farm produce into the cities. It is a healthy practice which promotes green growth, aesthetics, self-sufficiency and food security.

8. Getting back to our roots

Growing our own food, using locally-available construction material, minimising our dependency on technology, using our muscles for transit, being thankful to nature are some simply ‘city practices’ all of us can adopt.

9. Promoting ecologically-sound practices 

A growing number of businesses around are taking effective steps to reduce emissions, and are working for the betterment of the climate and communities. The citizens can get involved in promoting such practices by purchasing cheap and energy-saving technologies at home and work places, promoting carpooling, cycling, public transit systems and promoting recycling practices (paper, water, etc.) in homes and work places.

The authorities need to use zoning, subdivision regulations, building codes and standards effectively. The finances and budgets need to be strong and effective – and the authorities should have the power to absorb and implement these practices. Measures like ‘carbon taxes’ also need to be strictly implemented.

10. Awareness about environment

Using information, education and communication tools to persuade people to have a consensus about protecting the environment is also necessary.

Challenges Before Us

Zero carbon cities are not easy to achieve. However, there have been some examples of these cities like (Masdar City, Dongtan) which can work as a blueprint for future cities.

There are many challenges ahead to set up these cities. In countries like India, where there’s a development boom, the concept of zero carbon cities is vaguely connected to the proposals. The concept of climate change is still considered as a hoax by a number of renowned leaders around the globe. A huge politics surrounds this issue – and many vested interests are involved which often do not support people-centered development.

Conceptualizing zero waste cities on a large scale will be difficult due to this. The processes and mechanisms to curb  carbon emissions may be effective, but they are also flawed. Reforms like carbon credit merely legalise the shifting of carbon-generation from one geographical location to other. Lack of resources in developing countries to evolve such transitional concepts is yet another drawback.

Innovative solutions are required and are currently being worked-upon by those who worry sufficiently. The shift from non-renewable to renewable resources should be the response of every city towards climate change.


Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Wikimedia commons
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