An unusually cold winter followed by a near-global heatwave has brought the issue of climate change to the fore. As urbanisation continues, cities in particular are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet, faced with extreme temperatures and growing risks of drought and flood.
A report by the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee predicts that long, hot summers will become the new normal, estimating highs of 38.5°C by 2040. Cities are set to suffer disproportionately, due to the urban heat island effect, yet urban centres are also where solutions can emerge and take root.
Technology and innovation can help address climate change, by stemming emissions and mitigating the effects. Let’s take a look at some of the – quite literally – cool tech in use.
Energy efficiency and renewables
According to the EU’s Energy Efficiency Plan 2011, the construction sector has the greatest potential for energy and emissions savings. From processes to products, buildings embody a huge amount of carbon, but overall impact is often hard to track, thanks to the sheer number of stakeholders and complexity of development projects.
During the development phase, tech is making things easier. Homepod, for instance, is a piece of e-procurement software that allows builders to predict and measure building design performance in real-time, helping mitigate both operational risk and climate change.
Arbnco creates software that helps commercial property owners and managers make better decisions about the energy usage and performance of their assets. Arbn Renew encourages commercial property owners and managers to reduce their carbon output by clarifying the business case for renewables; Arbn Well uses a combination of sensor technology and occupant engagement mechanisms to help commercial owners or managers understand how the building performs for its occupants; and Arbn Climate simulates the performance of a building into a possible future climate, using a set of potential long-term climate scenarios.
“The impacts of urbanisation and global climate change will force us to change the baseline climate we design buildings for,” said Dr Parag Rastogi, lead building physicist at arbnco. “The London or Glasgow in 2040 will not be the London or Glasgow of 2010.”
Once a building is up and running, smart systems that leverage the Internet of Things can reduce energy usage in a number of ways, from restricting power in unused parts of a building to controlling passive heat and light with connected window shading.
A study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy showed that intelligent efficiency measures applied to 35% of commercial floor area could result in savings of over 50 terawatt hours by 2030. What’s more, the study predicted that the US could save 22% of its total projected electricity use for 2030 by including additional efficiency measures, such as smart manufacturing and voltage reduction.
As well as reducing the amount of energy used, switching to renewable sources is becoming more feasible, thanks to developments in storage technology. Engineers at Lancaster University have developed a new type of concrete that stores renewable energy in embedded potassium ions. The material, which is less efficient than standard batteries but viable due to the sheer scale in which concrete is used, could stockpile surplus power for use during periods of high demand.
Microgrids, too, offer an increasingly attractive and cost effective solution, producing and distributing renewable energy at the level of a small complex or even a single building. This technology is further enhanced by Artificial Intelligence; for instance, a product called Athena uses big data and machine learning to automate the complex process of energy storage and distribution.
Flood prevention and mitigation
As flood risks rise worldwide, technology is being harnessed to prevent flooding and limit damage.
Singapore employs such tech at a city level, with 210 water level sensors and 45 CCTVs that monitor the drainage system in real-time, facilitating speed responses during heavy rain. An integrated SMS system warns inhabitants of rising water levels and flash flood risks.
In the UK, IoT is being employed by local communities around the region of Calderdale in Yorkshire, which suffers from regular flooding. Using a low-power wide-area network called LoRaWAN, the system allows connected flood sensors to be installed across an area of several square miles. Residents can install and maintain sensors in their own properties, as well as nearby waterways, to create a crowdsourced dataset that, combined with sensors set up at key flood-prone locations, provides an early warning system for rising water levels.
As once secure areas become susceptible to rising water levels, the British multi-stakeholder initiative FloodFutures has created predictive scenarios for the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s. The country’s first national flood map provides detailed digital information on future risks, incorporating data on river flow, rainfall, sea level rise and climate change predictions to offer new layers of insight into flood hazards and their impacts on property, river banks, transport networks and bridges.
Dr Justin Butler, CEO of Ambiental, the company behind the technology, said: “Today, hazards resulting from the weather play a fundamental part of many businesses. In a changing climate however, existing systems and practices may not be adequate and it is important to take action using intelligence that can be relied upon to make informed decisions.”
Many cities suffer from a lack of green space and soft ground to absorb heavy rain. Urban sprawl combined with increased rainfall provides a perfect storm for harmful flooding. British firm Polypipe has created a smart ‘Blue-Green Roof’ that addresses the problem of urban run-off by capturing, storing and reusing rainwater. The company’s smart irrigation system also supports plant life in virtually any environment, including densely populated urban settings, by collecting rainwater and releasing it at controlled intervals.
Greening cities doesn’t just protect against flooding, it can also undo some of the urban heat island effect. In Berlin, landscape architects are experimenting with a ‘Sponge City’: green roofs and layers of vegetation absorb water when it rains, releasing it slowly through evaporation, cooling the area like a giant natural air conditioner.
Similarly, adding trees makes cities significantly cooler due to the extra shade and evaporation of water from leaves. UK charity Trees for Cities works at an international level to create greener cities, and Manchester’s City of Trees aims to restore underused woodland by planting a tree for each and every one of the region’s residents.
Cars and other vehicles are responsible for around 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While diesel engines emit less CO2, recent studies have shown that they produce invisible pollutants that damage human health and the environment.
To reduce emissions and avoid public health implications, especially in cities where congestion is the norm, the issue is being tackled from a number of directions – including free public transport, a shift to electric vehicles, restricting car use, and a range of other urban mobility innovations.
A key to solving the problem is raising awareness of the dangers of both petrol and diesel vehicles. Breezometer is a digital platform that monitors air quality in real-time, and the data is already being used in Paris to inform urban planning and development decisions that aim to reduce the overall number of cars on the road. “Air pollution is invisible so it can be difficult to measure the significance of the problem,” says Fionnuala Hogan, managing director of Goldacre, which has invested in the product. “With reliable and location specific information on air quality and pollution, governments, companies and consumers can better understand and take positive action.”
Innovators are working hard to create technology that both reduces harmful emissions and helps us prepare for the changes ahead. Taken together, such developments can make a real impact on the future of cities.
What impacts of climate change on the built environment concern you most? Let us know in the comments below.