Opinion - November 18, 2022

Fear in the City

Written by Bertrand Piccard 4 min read

If we consider the increase in world population and the foreseeable evolution of the rural exodus coming in the next 20 years, it is estimated that we will have to build a city the size of Manhattan every four months!

This astronomical order of magnitude risks annihilating the environmental efforts made in other sectors. This is an additional reason to decarbonize the building industry, but also part of the answer to help us understand why specialists in the field panic not knowing where to start.

As we use the same ways of building again and again, we tend to forget that there are other ways, which are much more efficient and much less expensive. We can then choose to lament and try to resist change as long as possible or, on the contrary, to seek our economic interest in novelty and evolve.

Mindful of this problem at the start of the second week of COP 27, my Solar Impulse Foundation officially announced the publication of its Solutions Guide for Cities. This book aims precisely to unlock the potential of urban areas, based on tangible case studies, where clean technologies have contributed to solving important challenges. It also identifies the obstacles that hinder the adoption of solutions at scale and guides decision-makers to help them overcome these obstacles.

These solutions include, for example, more environmentally friendly building materials such as low-carbon cements, efficient bio based insulation panels, anti-glare and heat managing glass for windows, renewable energy technologies that boost geothermal output, valorization solutions for organic or mixed plastic waste, greywater recycling or urban vegetalization optimization softwares, as well as often overlooked but highly effective energy efficiency measures.

Cities are responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions, but it should be remembered that they also generate 80% of global GDP. Faced with climate change, their decision-making power is therefore considerable. First generators of economic activities, they are indeed well placed to exploit all the opportunities of the ecological transition.

Does this reasoning also apply countries of the southern hemisphere, so strongly represented at this "African COP" in Sharm el Sheikh, when we know that the cities of Africa and South-East Asia annually emit around 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per inhabitant while European cities emit 5 and cities in the United States and Australia 15?

We can therefore easily understand the frustration of the less developed regions that are being asked to work, yet here is where most of the new construction will take place. Building in the old, inefficient ways will only make the problem worse.

To properly appreciate the magnitude of the challenge these countries are facing, it is essential to take into account the steep rise in the needs of the population and the dependence between different sectors. Over the past ten years, the energy demand of African countries has increased by a third while the demand for transport fuel has jumped by 50%!

The answer to this dilemma must appeal to common sense as much as to technology: the first thing is not to repeat the mistakes made by the countries of the northern hemisphere, and to bet from the start on modern, efficient, profitable and carbon-free projects, since they exist and make it possible to reduce inhabitants’ energy bills.

We must therefore urgently make these solutions known. When consulting the Solutions Guide for Cities, the ministers and other decision-makers I met admitted to me that they were not aware of the existence of these possibilities, which shows the extent of the communication work that remains to be done.

This day has a special meaning for me, because COP 27 has chosen as its official theme, for the first time in its history, that of solutions. All players need it, and cities even more than others.

First published in La Tribune

Written by Bertrand Piccard on November 18, 2022

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