Cities are our future. According to the U.N., 60 percent of the planet’s population will call an urban area home by 2030.
Yet, current cities are unsustainable, generating 75 percent of carbon emissions and accounting for 60 to 80 percent of energy consumption. A smarter model for development is clearly needed.
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All over the world, sustainability experts are looking at innovative ways to build (and maintain) cities, including:
- Green Construction: e.g. recycled construction materials, green roofs for stormwater management, zero-energy buildings (those that generate at least as much renewable energy as they use), natural ventilation systems, etc.
- Next-Generation Infrastructures: e.g. sustainable urban drainage systems, xeriscaping (low-irrigation landscaping), renewable energy sources such as biogas created from sewage, etc.
- Sustainable Transport Systems: e.g. public trains and buses that run on renewable fuels, coordinated bike paths and walkways, increased access to transport, tolls for private vehicle use, etc.
- Local Resource Production: e.g. recycled rainwater for drinking and irrigation, farmscrapers, urban agricultural plots, farmers markets, etc.
A key part of this vision? Technology.
Advances in Sustainable Technologies
Sustainable technologies have come a long way in the past few decades, driven by environmental awareness and the rising costs of fossil fuels.
This tiny technology has applications in clean energy, greenhouse gas management, green manufacturing and sustainable living. In India, for example, researchers are using composite nanoparticles to destroy contaminants such as bacteria and microbes in drinking water.
Next-Generation Nuclear Power
Next-generation nuclear power encompasses low-carbon ideas such as advanced fission reactors, fusion-fission hybrids and pure hydrogen fusion. Nuclear scientists continue to try to improve the inefficiencies of fission (for example, pursuing less waste and better uranium conversion rates) and remain hopeful about fusion, conducting research through projects such as the International Thermonuclear Reactor Experiment (ITER).
Biofuels include ethanol and biodiesels produced from oils and fats, as well as solid fuels made from non-food feedstocks, manure, waste materials and algae. The U.S. Energy Department has issued goals to produce cost-competitive, drop-in biofuels by 2017 and algae biofuels by 2022.
Current forms of bioplastics include starch-based PLA and PHA plastics. As oil supplies dwindle, many industries, such as the automobile and electronics industries, may look to ecoplastics as low-carbon alternatives. According to Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, over 5,000 bioplastics processing companies are expected to be in operation by 2020.
Smart Monitoring and Predictive Analytics
Monitoring and analytics can help increase efficiency in energy consumption, water use and green manufacturing. Companies can use sensors to detect faults (such as leaks in water supply networks) and predictive modeling to maximize resources (such as precision irrigation systems).
Tidal energy may have a strong future if investors are interested. Unlike wind or sunshine, tides are fabulously predictable. The city of Swansea in the United Kingdom is planning a 240-megawatt tidal power plant that would generate over 400 gigawatt hours of electricity per year — enough to power approximately 121,000 homes.
Sustainable Technology Challenges
Even optimists will admit there are plenty of roadblocks on the path toward a sustainable future. These obstacles include:
- Hidden Costs of Production: The production of many new technologies, such as biofuels and bioplastics, still requires sizable amounts of energy and resources. Critics also argue that increased reliance on biomaterials puts added pressure on arable land and edible crops, risking food shortages.
- Lackluster Investment: Investment trends in renewable technologies are generally positive. However, events like the Great Recession and the current boom in natural gas (which has caused electricity prices to fall) can turn off nervous investors.
- Government Apathy: Substantial public funding is often required to support up-and-coming technologies. In addition, some private sector companies may require considerable legislative pressure before they make the switch to sustainable practices.
- Public Perception: Renewable technologies have a residual 20th-century reputation for high cost and sketchy reliability. Although advances in affordable technologies are being made daily, large-scale public acceptance remains a challenge.