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Four technological innovations that can help reduce urban carbon emissions

It is estimated that the majority of people around the world now live in urban areas – and the global urban population is expected to grow approximately 1.84 per cent every year in the near future.Such growth is a key driver behind the move to “smart cities”, that aim to improve quality of life and efficiency of transport, energy provision and healthcare through technology.

But as urban areas grow, greenhouse gas emissions are likely to grow along with them.  With last year’s talks in Paris agreeing stringent new emissions goals, there is a great need to ensure that, as our cities become smarter, they also become greener.

Advances in renewable energy, electric vehicles and hybrid technology have led to significant reductions in emissions and waste already; and further improvements are already being made in biofuels, organic photovoltaics and hydrogen cars. The recent “Decarbonathon” competition, run by the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders initiative, alongside ENGIE and the National Physical Laboratory, set out to find the most promising new ideas that could reduce CO2 emissions in cities, and selected the five technologies that it thinks holds the most promise.

Mobiliteam is one such innovator. It has developed an air booster that reduces the energy consumption of electric vehicles by improving the efficiency of air conditioning systems, whilst having no effect on the passenger’s comfort. Even in cool climates, air conditioning accounts for 5-10 per cent of a vehicle’s fuel consumption, meaning that there are economic as well as environmental incentives for manufacturers to fit the technology.

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Another, Bynd, is working to develop a car-pooling app that, unlike existing car-pooling services, is aimed at the regular commuter. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, 91 per cent of car commutes are single passenger journeys. Bynd aims to work with companies to develop an app that allows staff within the same business (or another nearby) to combine journeys and reduce the number of car journeys taken in cities.

TEBS – the “Traffic Energy Bar System” – takes a different approach. Instead of attempting to make cars more efficient, or reduce road traffic, it makes use of busy roads to generate energy for use elsewhere.

TEBS is a system installed across areas where a high volume of traffic is slowing down, in which bars are pressed down by the wheels of each car as it moves over them, creating an up and down motion that generates electricity. It uses the waste energy from the cars slowing down, and harnesses it to power other systems in the city that require electricity.

The last innovation recognised as having big potential, Mutum, aims to reduce industrial and residential emissions. An idea borne out of the sharing economy, it aims to reduce overconsumption by making it easier to share things with others.

A typical electrical drill is only used for12 minutes during its lifetime: Mutum aims to show how such objects can be borrowed rather than bought. Overconsumption creates wasteful industrial processes through over-manufacturing, so reducing these emissions will help lower urban energy demand and subsequent GHG emissions.

These are just a few examples of the technology already out there to reduce emissions. But there is no silver bullet: if we are to reach the ambitious pledges set through the COP21 talks, more must be done, and new green technologies and continued innovation needs to be encouraged.


The problem is that emerging green technologies like these can often struggle to secure investment, severely hampering their development and market uptake. Current VC investment in clean technology stands at $4.8bn globally, far below the peak in 2008 of $12.3bn .

On top of that, subsidies in the energy sector often create unfair market conditions by favouring established technologies, many of which are contributing to climate change rather than helping to address it. The International Energy Agency assessed the total amount of subsidies to both fossil fuel and clean energy industries in 2013 and it found that the former received four times more than the latter.

Building confidence in new technologies is crucial to securing investment and market uptake. The National Physical Laboratory , the UK’s National Measurement Institute, verifies new technologies, helping them to prove that they do what they say they do. Having independent third-party validation is vital, helping emerging technologies bridge the gap until standards evolve and secure the confidence required to accelerate their commercialisation.  NPL is helping the winners of the Decarbonathon through such practical support.

The Paris talks went some way towards tackling these barriers to innovation, too. Mission Innovation saw 20 countries, including the UK, pledging to double cleantech R&D over the next five years. Around the same time the Breakthrough Energy Coalition was also launched, seeing the world’s leading tech giants joining forces to invest in high risk, early stage clean tech companies.

With new technologies such as those above being developed, we now have the best opportunity to make smart, green cities. By coupling these increases in funding for low-carbon technologies with practical support for the entrepreneurs and companies developing them, new technologies can become part of our cities, reducing our emissions and paving the way for smarter, greener, urban life.  

Jane Burston is head of climate and environment at the National Physical Laboratory.
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