Smart Cities are the foundation of a low-carbon future

Leading on from our exploration of the state of solar energy development this month, the evolution of smart cities also has a key role to play in the struggle to make our way of life sustainable. From easing the global energy transition, to encouraging sustainable investment practices, smart cities are becoming the nexus for driving our global transition to a low-carbon future.

Cities are a focal point for sustainable energy adoption

Cities account for about 75% of global primary energy use and are by far the biggest producers of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at 70%. While they only represent a minor contribution in terms of actual renewable energy production (through rooftop solar panels on homes and offices, etc) they still have a vital role to play in the global energy transition.

An IRENA report published this month highlights the importance of cities as target setters, planners and regulators of renewable energy consumption. Given that they are the main source of demand and are also generally the owners of municipal infrastructure, cities need to be smarter in the way they design, build and operate said infrastructure in ways that encourage greater efficiency and sustainability.

Through its varied list of case studies from cities around the world, the report demonstrates how city authorities can work with national government institutions, private businesses and even the city’s own residents to cut needless energy consumption/waste while boosting sustainability. These examples range from e-mobility initiatives in Costa Rica, to the installation of wind-powered heating systems in Zhangjiakou, China. Across all cases, the report emphasises the need for smart cities to strive for proactive local resident, community group and business engagement at every opportunity, bringing all interested parties into a programme of works designed to clean up the powering of their city.

Smart city waste management – Making waste less wasteful

While energy production and consumption are perhaps the most crucial target measures for a low-carbon future, waste management is another core focus for smart cities. By optimising the collection and disposal of waste, cities can reduce and eventually eliminate the significant levels of GHG emissions produced from burning rubbish or dumping it in landfill sites.

One demonstrative example that has cropped up this month is the newly launched waste digitalisation and collection improvement initiative in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. City authorities have teamed up with technology company Sensoneo for a large-scale deployment of thousands of advanced sensors across the city’s waste management assets. The sensors will be attached to thousands of public waste containers across the city, as well as in the city’s fleet of waste collection vehicles. This will digitalise the waste collection process, automatically verifying pickups with the central administration system, while optimising pickup routes for the trucks.

This is something of a blueprint for other would-be smart cities to emulate. Not only does a data-driven, sensor-driven approach offer greater efficiency in how, when and where collections are made, it also provides the city with a much clearer overview of its waste management flows, enabling optimal strategies to be refined and deployed.

Green funding – Smart cities are directly financing sustainability initiatives

Sustainability doesn’t stop with direct improvements of smart city infrastructure and assets, through green funding initiatives and channels, smart cities can drive further sustainability gains. Last month we explored how 2020 was a landmark year for sustainable finance, and 2021 is positioned for more of the same.

City-level green banks are becoming a more integral part of this growing trend of sustainable finance investment worldwide. A green bank can be a public, semi-public, or not-for-profit institution offering financial products focusing specifically on climate mitigation projects, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes. At the same time, they are increasingly using their resources to fund private sector fund smart city technologies, with the intention of making green funding a self-sustaining mechanism.

A recent example of this is the announcement from last month that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) will be making a joint investment with the Green Climate Fund (GCF) in a smart and energy efficient city project (SEECP) in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta city of Can Tho. Between them, they will invest over $67 million to develop smart city infrastructure, advanced energy-efficient lighting systems and smart controls for public buildings.

In the Middle East, another significant partnership was announced this month between the Abu Dhabi Investment Office and Enterprise Singapore (ESG). They aim to create a platform for private companies to submit their own solutions to Abu Dhabi’s current challenges, thereby accelerating its smart city aspirations. Companies whose solutions are chosen and approved by the Abu Dhabi Investment Office will then be eligible for funding.

These are just a couple of examples of how green funding offering from both the public and private spheres is becoming an increasingly successful vehicle for specific smart city development, while supporting the wider global phenomenon of sustainable financing. 

Smart cities are at the heart of our sustainable future

It’s hardly surprising that smart city development plans are becoming so embedded in the wider global struggle to lift urban populations out of their traditionally wasteful inefficiencies through the creation of sustainable practices and infrastructure. What is surprising is the speed with which this trend is growing. While it’s true to say that bold statements about smart cities are easy to make, what we’re seeing in the early 2020s is a move beyond the rhetoric, as tangible smart city improvements and initiatives take place in cities of all sizes and development levels across the world.

Just as important is the boosting of investment taking place in aid of smart city developments through the specific practice of green banks and the growing global influence of sustainable financing.