Green cities will only bloom once we break gridlock of collective inaction

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2012, 12:00am

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Two days at a conference on 'Greening Urban Growth' in Penang allowed me to catch up on the latest thinking about the environmental impact of urban development. The impact of industrial pollution is with us every day, in the form of smog, contaminated water and coughs and colds that don't go away.

Last year, the world population reached 7 billion. In 1950, the population was still only 2.5 billion - which means that, in my lifetime alone, it has nearly tripled.

Man's impact on nature comes primarily from our use of energy. Canadian eco-scientist Vaclav Smil noted that, in Roman times, the per capita energy consumption a year was 10 gigajoules. The average use per American today is 34 times higher, with a life expectancy three times longer, meaning we are consuming the earth's resources at a geometric rate.

Life depends on photosynthesis, the conversion of sunlight into energy by plants. On Easter Island, the population disappeared when the last tree was cut down. Smil estimates we have been depleting the earth's biomass at a frightening rate, so it's imperative that we make our buildings and the way we live more environmentally friendly.

Climate warming is only another way of saying that the balance between man and our plant life has been seriously damaged. Our urban life is better when we have more plant life around us.

I was not aware that 80 per cent of carbon emissions come from cities, so that greening cities and adopting a low-carbon city lifestyle is critical to our happiness, health and survival. This conference brought together renowned architects, urban planners, city officials from India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as economists, to try to bring an inter-disciplinary approach to green urban living.

Australian system-dynamics thinker John Mathews argued that industrial capitalism that has reached the finite limits of the planet cannot be allowed to continue. If the current trend of urbanisation and middle-class growth continues, there will be 4.9 billion middle class consumers by 2030, compared with around 2billion currently. A new model of consumption and production has to be developed.

Mathews argues that these new models are already being developed by the BRICS, led by China and followed closely by India and the others. He thinks this model will be based on a new industrial revolution, with major transformations in the energy market, creation of a circular economy (recycling) and moving from generic finance to targeted eco-finance. He has proposed issuing climate bonds to finance green projects, with the banks as gatekeepers to ensure green standards are met. This idea is well worth exploring.

My conclusion from the dialogue was that everything exists to make the world greener, but we cannot seem to get the political will to make it happen. For example, the technology already exists for energy sustainability; the world is awash with savings and liquidity; civil society has been mobilised for better ecological living; and urban planners and politicians know people want a better life. We all want green grids of smart energy, smart agriculture, smart lifestyles, yet we end up with brown gridlocks.

This is a systemic problem of collective-action traps at the global level. Witness the gridlocks in international negotiations in Kyoto, Copenhagen and Doha that were mired in mutual blame.

With the advanced markets blaming emerging markets as the future sources of carbon emissions, the BRICS will have no alternative but to find their own growth models.

System-wide problems cannot be solved partially. We need a systemic and systematic way of thinking and acting on the interactive and interconnected way the world evolves. Physicist Fritjof Capra has argued that the 'development process is not purely an economic process. It is also a social, ecological and ethical process - a multidimensional and systemic process'.

For analytical purposes, we can divide development into four interactive dimensions: business models, ambience/context, policies of government, and the architecture or topology of markets. Through their regulation, taxation and enforcement, governments can impose change; academics often propose good ideas for change, while civil society often opposes change. But it is through business models that change happens, for good or bad.

Hence, I believe that change will not happen until companies adopt as core values sustainability and humanising the workplace. Today, global corporations like GE and Siemens can already help provide the hardware and software for green cities. One challenge of turning around business models in Asia is that, very often in extractive industries, the most 'profitable' businesses are the most polluting.

The famous 'blue ocean strategy' urges businesses to move out of crowded - less profitable - businesses (the 'red oceans') into new areas (the 'blue oceans'). Perhaps it is time for business models to move out of the brown (polluting) industries into green fields.

How this can be done successfully is not up to business alone. Governments need to set the right policies, academia must come up with the right physical and social technologies, and consumers need to change their lifestyles.

Andrew Sheng is president of the Fung Global Institute