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Sustainable cities: How can UK cities learn from Europe in order to become greener?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Moon Light PhotoStudio / Shutterstock)

Cities are at the epicentre of the battle against pollution and climate change. The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that cities create a staggering 75 per cent of global CO2 emissions—primarily from buildings and transportation. This number is set to increase given the rapid rise in urban living. Last year the United Nations reported that by 2050, two out of every three people are likely to be living in cities or other urban centres. Cities may be largely responsible for the climate change emergency however they are also at the forefront of solving this challenge.  

Around the world, cities are taking leadership in creating a clean, electrified future—and so far, Europe is setting the gold standard for what can be achieved. Cities in the UK have made great strides in recent years to become greener and more sustainable, however they can learn from many of the innovative initiatives pioneered by cities in mainland Europe. With the climate crisis becoming more critical every year, now is the time to accelerate our efforts.

Because congestion and pollution directly affect the quality of life for their citizens, cities are an ideal test bed for innovative systems and technologies that can clean up their skies, streets and waterways, and optimise the delivery of energy and clean water. Cities must evolve into smart cities in order to tackle climate issues and become sustainable.

An electric future

It’s not necessary to start with such a comprehensive plan, however. If we just look at city centre congestion and air pollution, many cities are providing strong incentives to reduce traffic and accelerate electric vehicle (EV) adoption, in addition to the rebates and tax incentives offered by national governments. They may start modestly by offering special EV parking in areas where other drivers might circle for hours trying to find a space. Or, like Paris and Antwerp, they may restrict the use of older diesel cars and trucks in the city.

Several European cities are taking proactive steps to increase EV adoption and encourage the transition from petrol-fuelled cars to electric vehicles. Installing EV charging ports has been an important step for many of these cities. However, London is lagging behind many other cities in Europe in terms of EV adoption.

A growing number of fast-charging stations are appearing in cities across Europe. In particular, Finland has embraced EV adoption on a mass scale. The Finnish government aims to have 250,000 electric cars on the roads by 2030. As part of this objective the country has seen a growth in fast-charging stations that utilise innovative technology.  Many of these stations are simple to use: pick the right charging plug for the car, plug it in, select the charging method from a touchscreen, and it starts charging. This process can be monitored from a charging station’s touchscreen, or via the driver’s smartphone app.

Charging network operators can also perform several functions through web-enabled connectivity. This includes remote monitoring and configuring of charging points to re-solve driver issues. Furthermore, certain fast-charging providers offer proactive monitoring, preventative and corrective maintenance, training programs and software upgrades. These are all designed to minimise downtime.

Moving towards carbon neutrality

London has however made sustainable progress when it comes to becoming smarter and limiting carbon emissions. It is one of many cities in Europe, alongside Paris, Brussels, Madrid and others, to have announced “zero emission zones” (ZEZs), which will restrict traffic in their city centres to pedestrians, bikes, electric cars and delivery vehicles, and electrified public transit.

The ZEZ concept does however present some interesting challenges. First, you’ll need to electrify your public transit infrastructure. While trains have been electrified for years, e-buses have been more difficult to adopt at scale. Where and when do you charge them? How far can a bus go on a single charge? How big a battery is needed to complete a route?

Flash charging is a recent development in charging technology that solves these problems. Working with ABB, the city of Geneva was the first in the world to put a flash-charging bus on the road. With flash charging, the bus pulls into a bus stop, automatically connects a rooftop-mounted connector to the flash-charger and spends about 20-30 seconds topping off the battery. It then drives a few more stops and gets flash-charged again. Because it can literally do this all day, it can carry a full load of passengers, instead of spending its energy lugging around a huge battery. This compelling technology is now being adopted in Singapore and other cities around the world.

Likewise, zero emission zones are requiring a switch to electric power for delivery companies and people operating fleets inside the city centre. These are especially well suited to electrification because they drive predictable routes across a limited geography. However, a steep growth in fleet electrification, along with the increased use of personal EVs, presents a challenge to grid stability. You can’t install 40 or 50 high-powered chargers and expect the grid to carry on as usual. So, cities and utilities and fleet operators will have to work together to manage peaks in demand, increase use of solar and wind power and add energy storage capabilities. The city of Kiel, Germany, for example, is working on intelligent energy storage systems with an integrated information system to control the flow of energy between the power grid and electric vehicles.

Creating new models for transformation

To avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change, we can’t stop with e-mobility. Buildings often account for about half of a city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many cities are exploring legislation mandating that new construction will be all-electric and some cities require solar power generation on every new building. Retrofitting older buildings is more challenging, but the Netherlands, Ireland, Finland and Denmark are among the European leaders in phasing out fossil fuel in both new and existing buildings.

Like the challenges of EVs, to support electrified and buildings we need more sources of renewable energy and better ways to manage that energy. Of course, that includes more wind and solar power, but it also means thinking outside the box. The Swedish city of Västerås, for example, is taking a unique approach to weaning itself from fossil fuel. Its energy supplier, Mälarenergi, is removing the coal and oil from its fuel mix and replacing it with recycled trash. The system sorts and recycles what is reusable and burns what is not, employing sophisticated gas purification technology to clean the smoke before it is released. The smart and connected system then manages the delivery of that energy, providing heat for 98 per cent of city residents.

What does all this mean for the United Kingdom?

Firstly, the UK has plenty of existing models to learn from in neighbouring Europe, so it doesn’t have to start from scratch with a trial and error approach. Secondly, the UK must not to wait for other global markets to drive transformation. By then it will be too late. The government and private organisations in the UK need to accelerate their efforts in order to tackle the climate emergency before the damage to our world becomes irreparable.

We have the right technology to meet our goals, we just need to create new models for public-private partnerships that can jump-start transformation. Creating sustainable models will be crucial to establishing smart cities across the UK. It will take everyone – governments, corporations and citizens – to make the big changes now to ensure a clean and sustainable future.

Rob Massoudi, SVP Digital Transformation, ABB Ability