Humanity has awakened and is now actively mobilizing financial, intellectual, and political capital to address climate change and associated global sustainability risks. Last year investments and installations in renewable energy outpaced fossil fuels. What’s more, last year ended on a high note when 195 nations reached a landmark climate accord following a great deal of deliberation, debate, and compromise in Paris. And as if this were not all enough, last year Pope Francis weighed in heavily on climate change, the economy, and human rights – articulating the moral obligation we have as individuals, and as a global society, to take a hard look at what we’re doing to the planet and each other.
Religious, business, political, and societal foundations of humanity are converging on the fact that we need to do something about climate change. But ultimately, we will require much more than an executive order, a global accord, or a prayer for humanity to adapt to imminent climate impacts, while modifying our behaviors so that we can significantly slow our contribution to environmental pollution.
Although present global economic indicators don’t suggest it, the middle class is expanding worldwide. Some projections estimate the global economy to grow by 150% by 2040. And as we know, growth in the economy will require massive amounts of energy.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects global demand for energy to increase by 30% by 2040, driven by population and economic growth. And while EIA projects the global economy to grow 150% by 2040, they estimate renewable energy generation and energy efficiency will dramatically reduce total global demand for energy.
Data from scholars with the Brookings Institution estimate that the global “middle class” will reach 4.7 billion people by 2030, compared to 1.9 billion in 2010. In the next ten to fifteen years projected economic growth in Asia-Pacific region nations including China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia will give rise to a more significant global middle class than the world has ever seen. Brookings Institution research estimates that by 2030, Asia’s middle class will represent nearly two-thirds of the world’s middle class, accounting for more than 40% of global consumption.
As a global middle class rises, so too will demand for more energy. Reconciling our wants and needs will be essential to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Energy efficiency can curtail our use of energy for some time, but we also need to deploy, as organizations like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has advocated and initiated programming for, low carbon technologies that can meet the diverse needs of local communities in highly efficient, low polluting, and integrated ways.
Worldwide, buildings account for more than 30% of total energy use. Where we live and work consume a great deal of energy. Much of the energy to power, heat, and cool our homes continues to come from climate altering fossil-based fuels. Combustion of fossil fuels not only impact atmospheric increases in carbon dioxide (CO2), they also directly impact our quality of life where we live and work. Local air quality, drought and water scarcity, natural disasters and storm severity, spread of disease, and food production are each part of the intricate ecosystem that provides us with clean air, water, and ample natural resources. Human health and our quality of life lies in direct correlation to the health and vitality of the planet. And in many cities and regions of the world, we are failing. Consider the following:
- In early December 2015 Beijing issued, in response to dense smog and concerning increases in particulate matter (PM), its first ever red alert . The red alert is Beijing’s highest warning level based on a four tier system that alerts government officials and the public when air quality becomes a severe risk to human health. In response to the red alert, much of Beijing was shut down, as schools and government offices were closed, and as car use was restricted.
Then just two weeks later Beijing issued a second red alert as PM2.5 levels (the smallest and most hazardous of smog pollution) rose significantly, resulting in the city to ban vehicle use, close schools and shut down factories.
- On January 5, 2016 the city of Flint was declared in a state of emergency by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, just prior to President Obama declaring it a federal state of emergency. Nearly two years prior, the city of Flint had, in an effort to save money, changed its water supply source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River. As a result, the Flint River water, which has been deemed highly corrosive, caused lead to leach into the water supply, exposing an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 children to very elevated levels of lead. Several lawsuits have been filed against government officials, and investigations remain open.
- Since last fall, thousands of residents have fled their homes in Porter Ranch, California after smelling gas, feeling nauseous, experiencing headaches and other symptoms. Since October 2015 a leaking gas storage facility, operated by Southern California Gas Company, has spewed more than 150,000 pounds of methane into the air and surrounding environment. Methane is pound-for-pound significantly more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) with regard to its greenhouse gas (GHG) impact on the atmosphere. Some estimate that this single leak could account for one quarter or more of all of California’s methane emissions from 2015. It’s projected that it will take months for the Southern California Gas Company to stop the gas leak fully.
- And, in Hoosick Falls, NY, yet another water contamination crisis is underway revealing the public health, environmental, and economic concerns of this small rural community of 3,500 residents. Community members are concerned about their health, and also, the value of their homes. In December 2015, levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was found in public drinking water in Hoosick Falls, well above regulatory thresholds. PFOA, an industrial chemical used for coating and cleaning agents, is a known toxin and carcinogen in animals.
Half of the world’s 7.4 billion people live in cities. According to research by the United Nations , in 2050 more than 70% of the world’s population (projected to exceed 9 billion) will live in urban areas. This trend is significant, particularly as global demand for natural resources continues to rise in step with population growth and the evolving needs of society. Humans thrive off of connectivity with each other and the natural world. Cities tie people and place together with shared infrastructure and opportunities for enrichment through culture, arts, sciences, commerce, politics, and entertainment. As the global design and engineering consultancy points out in their “ Sustainable Cities Index ,” humanity has now officially entered “the age of the city.”
The migration of people to urban centers makes sense. It’s represents a cue that people value the significance of place as it defines their life. ARCADIS’ Sustainable Cities Index evaluated 50 of the largest cities in the world against specific sustainability indicators such as income inequality, property values, air pollution and greenhouse gases, waste management practices, work-life balance, the availability of greenspaces, literacy rates, education rankings, the ease of doing business, health indicators such as life expectancy, among others. According to the ARCADIS analysis, cities including Rotterdam, Soul, London, Sydney, and Copenhagen rank among some of the most sustainable in the world. And cities including Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Nairobi, which are primarily located in developing region of the world, are ranked lower on the sustainability index, but improving.
Paralleling the rapid urbanization trend is the rise of the global middle class. Data from scholars with the Brookings Institution estimate that the global middle class will reach 4.7 billion people by 2030, compared to 1.9 billion in 2010. In the next ten to fifteen years projected economic growth in Asia-Pacific region nations including China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia will give rise to a more significant global middle class than the world has ever seen. Brookings Institution research estimates that by 2030, Asia’s middle class will represent nearly two-thirds of the world’s middle class, accounting for more than 40% of global consumption.
Recent analysis by UBS also points out that the emergent middle class in the developing world largely lives near larger urban and coastal regions and are thus more susceptible to the impacts of climate change. UBS also reported that the middle class spending patterns for cities affected by climate change were very different. The middle class, for example, located in cities more prone to climate induced risks, typically spend more on housing and less on luxury items.
As more people navigate to cities and with purchasing power, greater demands will be placed on natural resources. Sustainable buildings and infrastructure provides a counterbalance this trend. But capital markets, real-estate developers, government agencies, and leading consultancies like ARCADIS cannot do it alone. The purchasing power of people can and will have a profound impact on the future state of sustainable cities and living.