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Could Smart Cities Combat Global Warming?

Improvements to areas like transport could have a significant impact

9Nov

By 2050, two-thirds of the world's population will live in urban areas. Africa's cities are the fastest growing in the world by some way, but the likes of India and China will continue to see astronomical growth as the magnetism of urban living continues to increase. This phenomenon poses both difficult challenges and incredible opportunities for policy makers and technology creators alike, as both strive to make living on top of one another as easy and pleasant as it can be. A major step forward in the progression of cities as entities has been the Internet of Things (IoT), with the proliferation of sensors across urban sprawls bringing in unprecedented levels of data for analysis and action.

Moves toward green initiatives in urban centers are already underway. By 2025, twelve major cities - including London, Paris, LA, and Cape Town - have promised to buy only zero-emissions buses, as well as making entire areas free from fossil fuel emissions by 2030. Though none have defined what exactly is meant by 'major areas,' it's a step in the right direction that will require input from both government and business to pull off.

And there's a business and personal finance case for making cities more energy efficient. 'There is now increasing evidence that emissions can decrease while economies continue to grow,' said Seth Schultz, a researcher for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group who consulted on the report. 'Becoming more sustainable and putting the world – specifically cities – on a low carbon trajectory is actually feasible and good economics.' The figures are astronomical, too. A report from the Global Commission on Economy and Climate found that government-backed initiatives on carbon cutting - affecting areas like transport, waste disposal, buildings, etc - could save up to $22 trillion by 2050. The report also found that, by 2030, the initiatives could cut the equivalent of 3.7 gigatonnes per year from the global carbon footprint, more than the total emissions from India.

It's important in this context to understand what we mean by smart cities: we're not necessarily talking about automated taxicabs and artificially intelligent porters. At present, the concept is more about the intelligent use of data collected by sensors to manage a city's assets or resources more efficiently. It's the IoT at a grand scale - devices across a city will gather and share information to give a bigger picture of how to improve its running. One example would be London's traffic management system. SCOOT uses traffic data to optimize green light time at intersections to improve traffic flow throughout the city. It's not a groundbreaking tech, but it is a small but significant improvement to a city in which traffic can be a serious issue.

One of the more immediate improvements smart cities can make is in their public transport infrastructures. Advancements in digitization and automation of a metro system, for example, can have significant impacts without the need for heavy investment. There are many commentators that argue that, though responsibility for transport has typically been that of government in many cities, the scale of the growth of some urban areas is such that outside help is necessary. One of the companies muscling in is Siemens, who have shown that an intelligent infrastructure can '[speed] up traffic by 20%, [increase] train capacity by 30%, [cut] power consumption in buildings by 30%, or [save] up to 40% in the build-out of power grids.' The company uses Paris' Metro Line 1 as an example - the 115-year-old line was upgraded to a driverless system and its capacity was increased by a significant 20%.

All of these developments could have a notable impact on a city's carbon footprint. When this is extrapolated world-wide, the effect could be astronomical, as mentioned earlier. Ultimately, as they currently exist, smart cities will be far from enough to combat the threat of global warming alone. They are, though, signs of a move towards a focus on energy efficiency that technology (particularly the IoT) is enabling. If the same level of data analysis and data trust could be applied to the wider energy sector, for example, we could see significant reductions in carbon footprints across the world. 

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