Cities Can and Must Cut Energy Use

Policymakers, private-sector leaders, researchers and civil society organisations are gathered this week in Singapore for the World Cities Summit and the International Water Week. One key issue they will discuss is how we can improve the environmental infrastructure of cities.

The development of cities in Asia is unprecedented. About 1.1 billion more people will be living in Asia's cities within the next 20 years. Cities and their inhabitants are responsible for about three-quarters of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. And cities, especially those in Asia, will be hardest hit when sea levels rise, with tens of millions of people likely to be forced from their homes.

The threat is immense: About 1.2 billion people could face freshwater shortages by 2020; crop yields in Central and South Asia could drop by half by 2050; Asia's coastal mega-cities - including Jakarta, Karachi, Manila, Mumbai and Shanghai - are vulnerable to flooding and damage from unpredictable weather patterns. Within this century, the citizens of Tuvalu, the Maldives and coastal Bangladesh may be forced to become 'climate refugees'. The poorest in the region will suffer the greatest.

Some Asian cities have made progress. Bangkok, with its new mass transit system, has adopted an action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In New Delhi, the Indian Supreme Court has mandated that taxis, buses and other public transport vehicles should switch from petrol and diesel to natural gas. Shanghai has committed itself to reducing energy use by 20 per cent relative to the size of its economy. Manila has banned energy-inefficient light bulbs.

But so much more needs to be done. The world simply cannot sustain current urban development trends.

A review of Asian cities' so-called 'ecological footprints' highlights the urgency. Worldwide, the sustainable footprint for each person is about 1.8 hectares. Today, the average in China's rural areas is 1.6. In Shanghai, it is already 7. The footprint of a typical inhabitant of an American city is 9.7. The consequences of China urbanising rapidly are daunting, given its population of 1.3 billion.

Developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region lack incentives to change the current development patterns of their cities. New technologies exist to radically alter how our cities operate, but too often there isn't the political will or bureaucratic capacity to apply those technologies.

The most pressing urban development challenge is mobility. Every five to seven years, the number of cars on Asia's roads doubles. In some countries the rate is even faster. Car population has been forecast to increase by 15 times in China and 13 times in India over the next 30 years, unless there is a change in current trends. Even if financing and land were available, it is not feasible to build enough roads to keep pace with such demand. The resulting traffic congestion and pollution would be unimaginable. And with more cars come more greenhouse gas emissions.

What can be done? Although there are global dialogues already in place, we also need to localise them for each city. There are some important actions that all cities, and all of us, can take.

One of the most pressing needs is to get people out of their cars and onto public transport. Singapore offers a good example of an efficient mass transit system with its extensive network of light rail and buses. Singapore was the first city in the world to limit the number of cars in its central business district by charging vehicles for access.

Bicycles are also efficient people-movers. Experience has shown that large numbers of people will use bikes if there is infrastructure for them. Bicycle lanes are cheap to construct and take up little space.

Another issue that needs attention is building density. Higher densities mean more shared walls between buildings, reducing heating and cooling costs, and less use of cars. Happily, density is also strongly correlated with liveability. The ability to walk to shops and restaurants and more usage of bicycles contribute to our well-being. Of course, density needs to be supported with open spaces - but this can be won from restrictions on roads and parking areas, which from a traffic management viewpoint are desirable in themselves.

Finally, there are opportunities for energy savings in the buildings themselves. Too many of Asia's buildings are poorly insulated against the heat or cold.

In Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator, a pilot project has shown that one of the city's three power plants could be shut if just 450 precast panel apartment blocks were refurbished so that their windows closed properly, they were better insulated against the cold and each apartment's heating could be individually controlled.

Such efforts require government action and participation from the private sector and individuals. Platforms to transfer knowledge and experience from developed to developing countries are also critical.

Reducing cities' energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are difficult goals but achievable. Our region has the finance, knowledge and experience needed to address the challenges. All that is needed now is the will to take action.