5 Ways Smart Cities are Addressing Climate Change
More than half the world’s population now lives in cities, drawn there for more opportunities, safety, and access to resources. But today’s cities are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—a major cause of climate change. And, in an ironic twist, urban areas also experience some of the most severe effects of the climate events they helped to create, such as excessive heat events, flooding, and medical emergencies, and evacuations from wildfires and extreme storms.
To mitigate the effects of climate change and pave the way to a more sustainable future, large cities across the globe are adopting “smart,” or AI-enabled, technologies that support urban infrastructures, conserve resources, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Regardless of location, today’s smart cities are tackling the challenges of climate change in five key ways, with tools ranging from AI-powered traffic regulation to “green” construction that relies on sustainable energy sources.
What Makes a City Smart?
“Smart” technologies are part of a worldwide digital transformation driven by the Internet of Things — a global network of everyday devices that are constantly connected and sharing billions of terabytes of data per second. Supported by advances in cloud computing and machine learning, these devices can communicate not only with humans but also with each other, even without human intervention.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is at the core of all smart technologies–algorithms that can be trained to recognize patterns, analyze data, and make independent decisions based on what they’ve learned. That’s the science behind devices ranging from Amazon’s Alexa and automated home security systems to sophisticated robotic surgical instrumentation.
On a larger scale, smart tech powers entire city systems and subsystems–and these technologies are giving cities the tools they need to address the climate crisis on multiple levels, from individual homes and businesses to entire urban infrastructures.
Climate Change: A Crisis For Cities
Throughout history, cities have sprung up in areas that offer the most advantages for survival and prosperity, and as they grow, they offer more opportunities and resources in one place than rural communities. Cities have always struggled with issues such as crowding, allocating resources, and maintaining social structures, and today, those problems contribute heavily to an ongoing climate crisis that brings more extreme weather and the potential for disastrous events than ever before.
That crisis is driven by the emission of greenhouse gases–carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane produced by the combustion of fossil fuels for power. With an abundance of vehicles, buildings, and manufacturing plants, cities are the planet’s prime producers of these gases, which contribute to the “greenhouse effect” that causes global warming and more intense weather events around the globe.
And because cities are highly concentrated areas with large populations, they bear the brunt of these events when they occur. Climate changes contribute to massive wildfires and record-setting flooding that can force evacuations and lead to deaths and property loss. With large areas of pavement, glass, and metal, urban areas become heat islands–areas with higher temperatures than their surroundings.
AI- Powered Urban Planning
One of the earliest and most effective adoptions of smart city technologies has been the use of AI-powered systems for tracking and managing the flow of traffic. With smart sensors at intersections and high-traffic areas, city planners are able to keep traffic flowing smoothly and avoid gridlock events that contribute to higher pollution levels and the release of more fossil fuel emissions. Virtually all aspects of traffic management can be automated to some extent, including parking meters and parking structures that can alert drivers when a space is open.
Other applications of smart tech in the urban infrastructure include systems of sensors and automated processes for monitoring and controlling energy consumption throughout the city. In that way, resources can be diverted when needed, such as in a heat emergency that calls for heavy use of electricity for cooling. Smart city grids can also send automatic alerts to residents whenever services are offline for maintenance, or in cases of emergency.
Recycling for Less Waste
Waste disposal is a key challenge for both large and small urban areas, and plastic waste makes a major contribution to a city’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. To mitigate the effects of discarded plastics and other kinds of waste, some cities including Vancouver and New York City are working to boost recycling and repurposing initiatives in order to limit the impact of landfills and other waste disposal processes.
San Francisco is aiming for a “zero waste” policy that prioritizes the recycling of plastics, metals, and other harmful disposables. Smart technologies in the city grid can help with these initiatives by making waste collection and disposal services more efficient, with sensors that signal when dumpsters are full and in need of pickup, automated recycling centers, and better route planning for collection trucks.
Green Buildings For Smarter Energy Use
Urban heat islands are a major contributor to climate warming, and this heat effect also leads to health emergencies and a strain on city energy grids. Large areas stripped of vegetation and covered with pavement, tall buildings made of glass and metal, and a high concentration of residences and businesses in a relatively small space can raise temperatures several degrees above those in surrounding areas, creating a citywide health crisis among vulnerable people.
To mitigate the effects of urban heat islands, cities such as Singapore are turning to “green” building practices to reduce energy expenditure and keep greenhouse emissions low. These buildings connect to the city’s smart management grids and use automated systems to adjust temperatures in response to changing conditions.
Early Response Systems for Climate Events
A growing number of urban centers are using advanced cellular technologies such as 4G and the new 5G networks to monitor dangerous climate events such as hurricanes and heatwaves and to alert residents directly with real-time information about the situation and actions to take, such as evacuation. Smart billboards at city centers, bus stops, and other community locations can also update residents on current conditions, and so can interactive information kiosks at key locations.
Electric Transport for a Smaller Carbon Footprint
As the need grows to replace fossil fuels with more sustainable fuel sources, a growing number of cities are investing in electricity for public transport. Electric buses and metro rail routes can be managed with automated systems connected to the city’s main grid for smoother traffic control and better scheduling. The Internet of Things also makes it possible to connect other services to transport, such as news and notification boards at bus stops and transit centers, and services for passengers such as cellular relays and charging stations.
Santiago, Chile leads the way in the move to electric transportation. The city has a designated “electric corridor” for electric buses that includes USB charging ports and public Wi-Fi at bus stops, along with real-time route and schedule notifications.
The world’s cities are uniquely positioned to suffer the consequences of global climate change. But these urban centers are responding to these challenges with innovative solutions that are largely or entirely possible because of new, smart technologies in the age of the Internet of Things.