Digital carbon footprint: the environmental impact of digital transformation

In recent decades, digital technology has revolutionised nearly all aspects of our lives, transforming the ways in which we work, communicate, travel, listen, watch, and play. For governments and policy makers, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the worsening climate emergency, connectivity and technological innovation have quickly become central to sustainable development, and the digital economy has brought great opportunities in tackling the climate crisis and working towards net-zero.

Digital transformation has improved efficiency and productivity across all sectors, and helped to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, transport, planning, building, waste management, and public services. However, our use of digital technology comes with its own energy cost, and as the world becomes increasingly reliant upon the internet and connected devices, it is important to acknowledge and manage the environmental impact.

The carbon footprint of ICT

It is estimated that there are currently around 4.66 billion active internet users globally, and as population and connectivity grows, this figure is increasing rapidly.

While it is easy to think of the internet and the digital world as an abstract and intangible space, the infrastructure that supports it is very much physical and comes with significant environmental and spatial demands. A huge amount of energy is required to power data centres and servers and to build and maintain transmission networks, and most of this energy currently comes from fossil fuels.

The manufacturing, shipping, and powering of digital devices also consumes a vast amount of energy, and the mining and extracting of the raw materials used to make them has a direct impact on land quality and biodiversity.

The use of digital communication channels and social media also has a significant carbon footprint. It is estimated that sending one email emits around 4g of CO2, and that in a typical year for a user of a business email account, around 135kg of CO2 is emitted as a result of incoming mail.

The average internet user is expected to spend around 2.5 hours per day on social media, which is thought to be the equivalent of driving around 0.9 miles in a car, and over the course of a year adds up to the equivalent of driving around 332 miles.

Internet browsing also accounts for a significant portion of digital carbon emissions. According to Website Carbon, loading the average webpage produces around 1.76g of CO2, meaning if a webpage were to get 100,000 views per month, this would emit more than 2000kg of CO2 in a year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, video and music streaming are among the biggest contributors to the digital carbon footprint, due to the vast amount of power needed to run the devices we stream on, as well as the energy needed to power the servers and networks that hold and transmit the content.  Streaming currently accounts for around 63% of global internet traffic, and video streaming alone is thought to generate approximately 300 million tonnes of CO2 every year (accounting for around 1% of total global carbon emissions).

What can we do?

ClimateCare and MyClimate have both produced useful guidance as to how we can work towards reducing our digital carbon footprint. The suggestions include:

  • Changing email habits, for example deleting older emails regularly and unsubscribing from unwanted newsletters.
  • Limiting video streaming and downloading content where possible.
  • Switching to a green cloud provider.
  • Unplugging devices when not in use.
  • Making devices and equipment last for as long as possible, disposing of old devices correctly, and purchasing refurbished or recycled devices where possible.
  • Storing data locally where possible and limiting cloud usage.

While individual behavioural changes are a part of the equation and certainly have the potential to make a significant difference, it is important to consider the wider context and look at changes that can be made at business and government level.

The ESCP Business School has highlighted the increasing need for businesses to be aware of the digital aspect of their carbon footprint, suggesting that the implementation of green ICT strategies will be crucial in helping organisations to meet sustainability goals, while also lowering costs.

Organisations have the potential to make a significant difference, for example by investing in green data centres and servers powered by renewable energy, building greener websites, refurbishing and repairing IT equipment to prolong its lifespan, and encouraging sustainable digital behaviours among employees.

What does this mean for policy?

As digital transformation continues at speed, the need for clear and effective policies around ICT and environmental protection becomes increasingly apparent. A 2018 report by Policy Connect called on governments and policy makers to recognise the energy consumption of the digital economy, to ensure best practice for the energy management of ICT, and to maximise the potential of carbon-saving digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and analytics.

This call to action is echoed in a 2021 report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which emphasises the need for policy leaders to act quickly to harness technological innovation to address the climate crisis, reduce the cost of green technology, and encourage its adoption on a global scale.

As technology progresses and lines between the digital and physical world become increasingly blurred, policy makers will have the challenge of anticipating change and creating flexible policies to deal with rapid developments and manage the impact.

Final thoughts

Overall, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the potential for digital technologies to address climate change and mitigate the impact of the climate crisis. However looking to the digital future, with an increasing number of people and devices online and increased demands on infrastructure, it is important for the environmental impact of technology to be acknowledged, and the effects mitigated.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on digital transformation and decarbonising:

Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Transport’s journey to sustainability

Looking back and beyond: The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021

brown sand near body of water during daytime

If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus, then 2021 was surely the year of the ‘coronacoaster’. From the highs of vaccine rollouts and loosening of social restrictions to the lows of fluctuating case numbers and a worrying new virus variation, we’ve all become unwilling passengers on what feels like an endless un-funfair ride.

But while the pandemic has never been far from our thoughts, it hasn’t taken over complete control of our lives. Research, evidence gathering, conferences and partnerships have continued in fields as diverse as education and housing, culture and the environment.  Which is why, this year’s reflection on The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021 focuses on some of the issues that we covered which looked beyond the pandemic.

Saving the planet

Until the emergence of Covid-19, many regarded climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity. That threat hasn’t gone away. Last summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the current state of the climate crisis, setting out the already devastating effects of climate change and warning of the deadly impacts, which will intensify as the planet gets hotter.

Throughout this year, our blog has focused on this issue, highlighting the dangers posed by climate change and the efforts to tackle the problem. In April, we looked at the monumental challenge of decarbonising the UK’s ageing housing stock, and highlighted a survey showing that two-thirds of housing associations have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer.

“However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.”

We returned to the issue this month, with an overview of plans by government and industry to make the transition from gas boilers to greener ways of heating our homes.

In November, the landmark COP26 climate conference took place in Glasgow, and while the major talking points included protection of the world’s forests and reducing dependency on fossil fuels, our blog focused on how important the circular economy is to tackling global warming:

“…if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.”

The cultural imperative

From community murals to television drama, from open-air concerts to singers entertaining neighbours from their balconies, culture and the arts have played a vital role in diverting us from the grim news of the past two years. And although the arts have taken a severe hit during lockdowns, artists across the globe have continued to create and share their work.

In January, we highlighted some of the ways in which creative people have found new ways to express themselves and to support the wellbeing of others:

“Organisations and individuals have been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience: “I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

In April, our blog reported on efforts by cultural communities to break down some of the barriers to digital engagement. It’s estimated that seven million people in the UK don’t’ have digital access, while 11.7 million don’t have the digital skills needed to engage online. In an increasingly ‘digital by default’ society, those numbers are troubling.

Our blog post described some of the ways in which arts and cultural organisations are tackling digital exclusion:

“One project managed by Birmingham Museums involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities.”

Levelling up and the foundational economy

The economy is another recurring theme that we’ve highlighted in our blog. The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

In May we reported from a webinar looking at the scope for charities to get involved. On the face of it, the fact that much of the focus is on capital spending could be challenging for charities whose work involves tackling problems such as addiction or homelessness. However, our blog explained that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of obtaining levelling up funding:

“… a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.”

In February, we shone a light on the foundational economy, which provides some of the essential services of everyday life, such as food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. While these services are vital, many of the workers providing them are among the lowest paid in society.  Our blog looked at the potential value of the foundational economy for the post-pandemic recovery:

“It has been widely agreed that a return to a business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward, and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.”

The issues of our times

From town centres to smart cities, from Scotland’s burgeoning space sector to Britain’s hard-pressed food system, throughout the year we’ve been raising awareness of important issues that concern or impact on public policy and practice.

But we haven’t ignored the ongoing public health emergency. In November, we reported from a webinar on some of the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health; in July we looked at the important work of health librarians during the pandemic; and in May our blog reported on the role of behavioural insights, data analytics and “nudge” techniques in public health, and in particular during the vaccine roll-outs.

Final thoughts

As we stand on the threshold of 2022, things look uncertain. But, as our blog posts have demonstrated throughout the past year, despite the anxieties and restrictions generated by the pandemic, great work can still be achieved by the public and private sectors, by charities, communities and individuals, for the benefit of society and the wider world.

All of us in The Knowledge Exchange team – Morwen, Donna, Heather, James, Rebecca, Hannah, Euan and Hollie –  would like to wish all our readers a safe and peaceful festive season, and very happy new year.

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research officers and keep up to date with our latest blogs

Decarbonising our buildings: heat pumps or hydrogen for the future of heating?

In October, the Scottish Government released the Heat in Buildings Strategy: Achieving Net Zero Emissions in Scotland’s Buildings. The strategy presents the approach to achieving the target for net zero emissions from Scotland’s buildings by 2045 and is a key component of the government’s ambitious climate change targets for wider society.

In the same month, the UK Government also unveiled its eagerly awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy. This includes similarly inspired aims, such as the phasing out of all new fossil fuel based heating system installations by 2035.

The coinciding release of the strategies means that the journey to decarbonisation is gradually becoming clearer to the consumer. Both governments have indicated their ambitions to make housing greener.

However, they also recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all to decarbonising the tens of millions of homes with mains gas boilers. This transition will be hugely complex, most likely requiring multiple technologies and approaches.

Industry contest heating up

The major players in the UK’s domestic heating industry – believed to be worth an estimated £17 billion – are already moving to secure their role in line with the new government plans and commitments.

In the future, there will be little place for the out-of-favour gas boiler. Traditional boiler manufacturers are aiming to evolve and align their products for long-term security,  whilst the manufacturers of technologies in their infancy, such as heat pumps, are presented with an opportunity to reform the industry for good.

It’s led to the cottage heat pump industry facing off against the established big gas companies’ development of hydrogen ready gas boilers.

Heat pumps the main contender

Whilst no quick fix technology is currently available to replace boilers, heat pumps are undoubtedly a viable frontrunner. The electric devices are steadily growing in government promotion and consumer popularity, as sales more than doubled in 2021 to give the industry its best ever year.

And, as a key feature of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, homeowners in England and Wales will be offered subsidies of up to £5,000 from April 2022 as an incentive to convert their gas boiler to a heat pump.

Heat pumps extract energy from a lower temperature source such as the ground or air and increase it to an appropriate temperature for a heat source in the home – via a compressor and a circulating structure of liquid or gas refrigerant. This heat can either be directly blown into the property or transferred into the central heating and hot water systems.

The selling point of heat pumps is their potential to greatly reduce carbon emissions if they are powered by low carbon electricity, which much of the UK now is. A new air source heat pump can lower a home’s carbon emissions by over 23 tonnes over 10 years.

Whilst relatively novel, the technology behind air source heat pumps is well established with evident positives. They are typically safer than combustion systems, have a very long lifespan with little maintenance and can double up as an air conditioner during the summer months.

Despite the UK Government and Climate Change Committee (CCC) pushing heat pumps as a blueprint for decarbonising, they are not free of concerns and complications.

Heat pumps are expensive to buy and install upfront and, similarly to boilers, the cost can vary. According to the Energy Saving Trust, an air source heat pump will generally cost around £3,000- £4,000 for an average sized house pre-installation and around £7,000-£13,000 installed – raising concerns about affordability and the average consumer’s willingness to go green.

They are, however, very efficient once installed. With an average efficiency of 250%-350%, a heat pump is likely to save you money, compared to an old gas and oil-fired boiler or electric heating. In well-insulated homes, heating bill savings of as much as 60% can be achieved.

Sufficient insulation is a critical pre-requisite to heat pump success. Commenting on the release of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas described placing heat pumps in Britain’s poorly insulated homes as like “using a teapot full of cracks: its leaky, its inefficient and it’s a waste of money.“

The UK’s housing stock is among the most poorly insulated in Europe and the current insulation of an ageing stock, like Glasgow’s Victorian tenements, poses a real barrier to the mass roll-out of heat pumps. Whilst heat pumps are suitable for older properties, consumers will need to commit to a considerable amount of insulation upgrades and home disruption to realise their benefits.

Hydrogen

An intriguing alternative that is in the developmental stages to replace gas is the use of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the natural world.

Hydrogen is already being heavily researched as a fossil fuel alternative in transport, and support for its role in heating is growing in popularity.

A study by the Institution of Engineers and Technology (IET) found that there is no clear reason as to why hydrogen gas cannot be seriously considered as a clean and safe alternative on the UK grid. Similar to heat pumps, hydrogen has the potential to be entirely renewable with no carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is also attractive as it requires minimal disruption in terms of new appliances and installation in the home. Consumers would use a hydrogen ready boiler that works almost identically to a traditional boiler. Likewise, the UK’s existing gas pipe system is well placed to make the switch due to the ongoing systematic replacement of old, unsuitable iron pipes over the last 20 years.

However, creating a new national network of hydrogen supply to the country’s homes would be a monumental and extremely expensive challenge that has never been done before. Concerns also exist around the extraction of hydrogen at this scale, as it is likely to be extracted from methane.

The extraction process emits carbon emissions which must be contained and stored through carbon capturing. Carbon capture projects of this scale do not currently exist and the idea is still under development, raising concerns around greenhouse gas emissions as a by-product of hydrogen extraction.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that the challenge of reducing building emissions is no longer just about grand intentions and targets. Whilst these are important to commit to, focus must now turn to ironing out the practicalities of how these will be achieved.

At the moment, the only established technology able to deliver clean heating is the heat pump. Yet, the UK has the worst heat pump sales and second worst installation record in Europe for a country its size. Technology such as hydrogen has potential but is still in the very early stages with many unknowns.

The UK must speed up investment in these industries to meet ambitious targets, with more detail, support and incentives for consumers.


Further reading: more on energy efficiency and decarbonisation from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Guest post | Carbon capture and storage: where should the world store CO₂? It’s a moral dilemma

The recent Glasgow climate pact committed 197 countries to “phas[ing] down unabated coal”. Unabated coal refers to when power stations or factories burn coal without capturing and storing the carbon dioxide (CO₂) generated.

Kian Mintz-Woo, University College Cork

Because the world has made such little progress in eliminating coal, oil and fossil gas, climate modellers foresee some use of carbon capture and storage as necessary to reach zero emissions in enough time to avert catastrophic warming. The technology to capture carbon is in development, but one burning question remains: where on Earth should we store all that carbon?

Different methods of carbon capture will take place at different sites. Some involve absorbing emissions immediately after burning fossil fuels in chimneys and smokestacks where the CO₂ is highly concentrated. Other methods capture carbon directly from the air, either by using chemical reactions that bind the carbon using lots of energy or by growing carbon-hungry plants which can be burned for energy and the resulting emissions subsequently captured.

In new research, myself and environmental engineer Joe Lane at Princeton University in the US argued that, regardless of the method, leaving decisions about where to store carbon to commercial entities would mean avoiding an important moral dilemma.

Funding for carbon capture and storage is insufficient. At the current rate of deployment, 700 million tonnes of CO₂ storage capacity will be added by 2050 – 10% of what is required.

Countries would have to massively ramp up investment to be compliant with the Paris agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Some of this money would be public funding, and people would reasonably expect it to fund projects which are morally sound.

On the one hand, it might be deemed important to develop storage sites with the best prospects for storing lots of greenhouse gas for the longest duration. This argument maintains that the most important consideration for deploying carbon capture and storage is making the largest possible contribution to arresting climate change.

To give carbon storage sites the greatest chance of success, it makes sense to develop them in places where the geology has been thoroughly explored and where there is lots of relevant expertise. This would imply pumping carbon into underground storage sites in northern Europe, the Middle East and the US, where companies have spent centuries looking for and extracting fossil fuels. Storing carbon is roughly the reverse of extracting it from the ground, and there is an opportunity for workers in the oil and gas industry to lend their skills and expertise to this endeavour.

A California oil field dotted with derricks.
Some US companies have been extracting oil for well over a century. Alizada Studios/Shutterstock

On the other hand, it might be important to develop storage sites in economies where the current and future demand for carbon capture and storage is greatest. These competing aims pull in different directions. The regions with the best prospects are not often those with the greatest expected need.

Developing storage sites in economies where expected demand for carbon capture is highest overwhelmingly favours developing regions of Asia. In India and China, for instance, coal power stations and cement plants are expensive to decommission and will need lots of carbon capture and storage capacity to decarbonise. If developing regions are expected to decarbonise without sufficient support to roll out carbon capture and storage, it could mean they have to throttle development to reduce emissions.

There are no easy answers in this debate. Increasing carbon capture and storage capacity as quickly as possible could benefit future generations by reducing the severity of climate change. So, you could argue that developing the most promising sites in Europe is the best way forward. But directing investment for storage facilities from wealthy countries to developing regions could help address the debt the former owes the latter for causing the brunt of the climate crisis.

World leaders should recognise this moral dilemma and consider the choices with urgency. The need to remove and safely store carbon becomes more severe by the day. Given the time and costs involved in developing storage sites, and the real possibility that the storage sites may not be sufficient for the carbon countries emit, this is a question which cannot be delayed.


Kian Mintz-Woo, Lecturer in Philosophy, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more on air pollution from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Guest post: If we all choose the fastest mode of travel in a city, the whole city gets slower – and more congested

The more people choose the fastest route by car, the more congested a city becomes. Alexander Popov | Unsplash, FAL

Rafael Prieto Curiel, UCL and Juan Pablo Orjuela, University of Oxford

People in cities often choose how to travel based on how long it will take. In recent years, navigation apps such as Google Maps and CityMapper have enabled people to decide between various modes of transport by seeing which one most quickly gets them where they want to go.

Cities of course have long dedicated a disproportionate amount of space to cars. Although in some parts of the global north – and in certain demographics – car use is declining, elsewhere it has, unsurprisingly, increased.

In a recent study, we modelled what would happen to average travelling times in a city if people were given only one other option – using the car or using another mode of transport – and if they acted only in their own interest (getting to their destination as fast as possible).

We wanted to see what would happen if everyone acted selfishly. How would that compare, we wondered, with a theoretical case in which people chose their mode to minimise travel times for society as a whole and not only for themselves.

City spaces

Using mathematical modelling, we found that if all travellers behave selfishly, and if we have a system that not only makes it relatively inexpensive to use a car, but also allows congestion to affect non-car users (cyclists, public transport users, pedestrians etc), collectively we all end up taking longer to get where we need to go – whether we’re driving a car or not.

City streets are often designed to make travelling by car faster and more efficient. And despite there being, for instance, an increasing amount of cycling infrastructure worldwide and higher satisfaction among people who commute by bike, it is still very common to see narrow, disconnected cycling lanes which result in congestion induced by private cars affecting cycling travel times too.

Mixed-use lanes – those that are used by both private cars and public buses, as opposed to dedicated bus lanes – have the same effect: car congestion affects bus users too. Without proper infrastructure, there are therefore no incentives to use public transport or active transport options, such as cycling and walking.

And even when there is a cycling path network or dedicated bus lanes, if these cross over or otherwise intermittently share space with the general road system, this also slows everybody down. It makes the system as a whole less efficient.

Similarly, free parking for private vehicles also results in longer travelling times for everyone – including non-car users – because they negate the benefits, for individuals, of not using a car if others still do.

We found that selfish behaviour with such inadequate infrastructure results naturally in more cars, more congestion, and longer travel times. If using a car remains the easier and quicker option (on an individual level), people will keep using cars and cities will remain congested. By trying individually to win, we all lose.

Competing priorities

One alternative is to design more collaborative transport networks in which we all accept some personal delay to achieve a distribution that is better for society. We could, for example, include not only personal cost in some of the apps we use, but societal costs also. What if Google Maps told you not only where congestion is in real-time and what would be the quickest transport mode to choose for you as an individual, but which transport mode would offer the best results for your neighbourhood, your family, your colleagues, or your city?

Research has shown how difficult it is, however, to shift commuter behaviour. It also highlights the public opposition there has been to alternative measures such as limiting maximum speeds in order to lower traffic injuries, despite such measures saving lives.

Given this, it could prove difficult to convince some car users to sacrifice personal efficiency for the greater good. But we could start by at least making these trade-offs explicit.

A giant spaghetti junction in Los Angeles.
Our cities are designed with car travel in mind. Denys Nevozhai | Unsplash, FAL

Motorised private transport has a wide variety of impacts that threaten a city’s sustainability, not least the wellbeing and health of its citizens. It contributes to air pollution and climate change through vehicle emissions and results in traffic injuries and nurtures sedentary lifestyles.

To encourage people to use more sustainable alternatives to car transport, cities need strong policies that steer people away from using their cars. So far, these have included low-traffic neighbourhoods and congestion charges that try to make car drivers pay for the congestion they are causing.

Elsewhere, systems have been implemented that attract people to transport modes, such as safe lanes for cycling, that typically have better environmental and social outcomes. These systems emphasise individualistic attitudes but target societal costs to those most responsible for them.

Ideally, we should create policies that help us act in the interest of our community. In the meantime, policies that push people away from their private cars could bring us closer to what would be optimal for the collective even if we are all acting in our own interests.

Rafael Prieto Curiel, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL and Juan Pablo Orjuela, Senior Research Associate and Executive Education Programme Director, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on urban transportation

Grey to green: can green spaces create equity and wellbeing in post-COVID cities?

As 2021 draws to an end, much of the world is slowly emerging towards post-pandemic life. Focus is shifting from response to recovery. Governments, activists and academics are arguing for a green recovery – a one-off opportunity to truly incorporate climate change objectives, sustainability and equity into future development.

Cities served as the frontline to the pandemic and will continue to do so in efforts to transition towards a sustainable recovery. Building the cities of the future was the focus of a recent NESTA webinar in conversation with Daisy Narayanan, Senior Manager of Placemaking and Mobility at the City of Edinburgh Council. It highlighted the importance of creating urban environments that put people first for healthy, safe and sustainable communities.

Opportunities for cities

Narayanan argued that positives can be taken from COVID-19, as it inspired collaboration across sectors and communities whilst proving the responsiveness and adaptability of traditional systems. She believes that this mindset should be harnessed going forward to facilitate meaningful changes and progression within our cities for everyone.

Describing herself as a ‘relentless optimist’, she stated, “I think there is something about this moment in time where there is a real kind of desire to move forward, in a way that changes how things used to be, into what things need to be or should be. I think there is a lot of excitement around shaping that together.”

Narayanan went on to talk about the opportunities she sees for transforming our public spaces with collaboration across planning, transport and economic development. She is excited by the potential of concepts such as the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’ and its growing presence within city planning around the world and in her own city of Edinburgh.

More broadly, she is excited that citizens are recognising the importance of living well locally and that community wellbeing should be inherent to placemaking.

The inequality of green space

Whilst positives can be drawn from collaboration during the pandemic, it also magnified how divisive our cities’ environmental issues can be. Pollution, congestion and dwindling green spaces compounded the health and social challenges for many of those living in urban areas.

With most inside amenities forced to close during periods of lockdown, city dwellers turned to parks for exercise and socialising in unprecedented numbers. However, urban green spaces proved to be unequal in distribution. Socioeconomic status is the most likely determinant to green space accessibility and quality, and access is typically limited to the more scenic neighbourhoods with higher average incomes.

The benefits of urban green spaces to an individual’s health and wellbeing are well documented, with associations between the presence of green spaces, greater quality of life and decreased risk of excess mortality. There is growing research suggesting that city populations without the provision of green spaces in the UK had typically higher instances of mental health issues, such as COVID-related anxiety and isolation.

Of course, the provision of green spaces is only one of a number of factors highlighted in discussions around equalities, health and well-being in urban areas. However, the pandemic exposed the barriers to accessing the potential value provided by such spaces which could continue to reinforce inequalities.

Can a green integrated approach to transforming our cities tackle inequality and promote wellness in the post-COVID city?

Lessons from Milan’s green placemaking

During the webinar, Narayanan briefly touched upon how Milan is a commendable example of a city making really big changes to its public spaces for the benefit of its citizens.

The city has impressive commitments for using nature-based solutions to increase resilience towards future environmental and health crises, whilst stimulating an equity-based approach to tackling climate change.

The Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, committed his city to green urbanism before the pandemic and has since campaigned for efforts to be increased due to the unequal challenges created in cities.

He stated, “The green and just recovery that is needed to create more sustainable and healthier cities sees urban nature as a key element for building back better I have been clear that any recovery in my city, in Italy and for Europe, must be rooted in these principles of equity and climate action.

Sala aims to plant three million trees across Milan by 2030 to tackle climate change and to halt the trend of deteriorating air quality. At the core of this strategy is the transformation of derelict land in deprived neighbourhoods into 20 high quality urban parks.

The city government is providing for residents to have trees planted in their private gardens and upon flat rooftops, whilst greenery is being incorporated into car parks and on the sides of office blocks.

Integrating green spaces, food supply and equity, the city’s growing number of community gardens and allotments are often situated upon apartment block rooftops. Residents can grow and collect food whilst local restaurants are encouraged to use ingredients from the nearby streets. Locals have also lauded the social spaces that these gardens have become, as users can collaborate and educate each other through gardening.

Perhaps the most symbolic project in Milan’s transition is the Bosco Verticale or ‘Vertical Forest’- two residential apartment blocks which have been almost completely covered with trees, perennials and shrubbery. Designed by architect Stefano Boeri, the 80m and 112m high buildings have the equivalent vegetation of 30,000 square metres worth of woodland upon only 3,000 square metres of concrete.

Consisting of hundreds of plant species of various shapes and colours, the project is a popular, living landmark throughout the year. Not only an appealing addition to the Milan skyline, the urban vegetation has been a remarkable success – lowering temperatures, encouraging 20 new bird species into the area and absorbing 30 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

The towers demonstrate the multiple benefits that can be achieved from small-scale integrated approaches to increasing green spaces. The concept is already being replicated in cities around the world.

If successful, it is believed that Milan’s vast increase in vegetation has the potential to absorb an additional five million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, whilst significantly decreasing the presence of pollutant particles in the air associated with cancer and respiratory diseases.

Concluding thoughts

Milan’s transformation is exemplary of a city that is learning from previous vulnerabilities, using urban space to directly promote citizen wellbeing whilst tackling climate change.

As Narayanan argues, all cities now have the opportunity to put people’s needs and wellbeing at the centre of future urban spaces. Whilst citizens and authorities often both want to achieve attractive, sustainable and healthy places, she argues that citizen voices get lost in consultation.

As a step to progressing away from this, she says: “Consultations should be more like conversations. Discussions need to be done respectfully, evidence-based, data-based and using people’s stories and life as the basis for change.”


More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on placemaking and liveable cities:

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research officers and keep up to date with our latest blogs

What goes around comes around: how the circular economy can reduce waste and address climate change

This week, the crucial COP26 summit gets under way in Glasgow. The meeting will bring together government leaders, climate experts and campaigners with the aim of agreeing coordinated action to tackle global climate change.

The discussions will be wide-ranging, covering major themes such as deforestation, renewable power generation, and electrification of transport. But although it might not hit the headlines, there’s another issue that could play a critical role in meeting climate change goals: the circular economy.

Producing, consuming and disposing of the products we use in our everyday lives accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting those emissions means upending the conventional “take-make-consume-dispose” model of growth, and designing waste out of our economy altogether.

In advance of the COP26 meeting, The Economist magazine hosted a webinar which focused on the potential of the circular economy for emissions reduction.

The challenges of going circular

Introducing the event, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, The Economist’s global energy and climate innovation editor, explained that the essence of the circular economy is about keeping materials in circulation and maintaining their utility. But how much of a Utopian dream is this, and what are the practical challenges that need to be overcome if this elegant theory is to become a reality?

In response, Federico Merlo, managing director of member relations and circular economy for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, explained that, while changing business models to extend the life cycle of products would not be easy, the economic benefits of using and wasting fewer materials should drive business in the direction of the circular economy.

Jim McLelland, Sustainable Futurist at SustMeme, was concerned about possible resistance from consumers in changing their behaviour. Because many people equate consumption with ‘shopping’, they don’t consider the emissions generated during the journey of materials from design to finished product. This could result in friction in the transition to the circular economy.

But Kai Karolin Hüppe, sustainability & circular economy lead for Arthur D. Little management consultants, suggested consumers were becoming more curious about how the materials that made their products came to be in them. And once they know the impact of consumption, people can make informed buying decisions. 

She went on to explain how this is getting easier, thanks to new tools from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and the Science Based Targets  initiatives, which can help to identify, measure and manage emissions throughout material life cycles. When the Kraft food company mapped out the sources of its own emissions, it discovered that over 90% were not directly generated by the business, but by indirect sources, such as suppliers and distributors.

Making plastic circular

In recent years, there has been much greater awareness about the environmental damage caused by plastic. One of the world’s biggest plastics manufacturers is Dow, and the company’s commercial vice president for packaging and specialist plastics took part in the webinar to outline how it’s addressing the issue.

Marco ten Bruggencate explained that, while Dow is taking sustainability seriously, the company needs to go much faster. Doing this means making sure the whole production process is addressed, from the way factories are powered to the use of renewable feedstocks to make bio based plastics. And now, Dow is looking at how to make plastics part of the circular economy by making sure that valuable waste is looped back into new packaging structures.

Raising awareness

Education has a vital role to play in the circular economy, and Jim McLelland highlighted an initiative that is providing the construction industry with greater understanding of sustainability issues.  The Supply Chain Sustainability School is funded by major construction contractors, and provides free access to training for suppliers and subcontractors in a range of disciplines, including common standards for sustainability. Jim noted that construction is responsible for 38% of global emissions, and a typical supply chain involves large numbers of materials and many microbusinesses in different countries and regions. The collective approach offered by The Supply Chain Sustainability School is an important contribution to a sustainable built environment.

Reversing the trend

Jim is one of the authors of the Circularity Gap Report, an annual progress report on the journey to a global circular economy. The first report, published in 2018, established that the world was only 9.1% circular. But the most recent report put the figure at 8.6% circularity.

It appears that the world is going in the wrong direction, but there are now signs that businesses are moving forward with their own ideas.

The packaging sector, for example, is exploring digital technologies that could drive a truly circular economy – such as blockchain to help with tracking material flows, and digital watermarking to enable better sorting of packaging waste.

And achieving circularity doesn’t mean a company has to completely rethink its business model. Global sportswear giant Nike was able to reduce the waste generated by one of its running shoes by 80% simply by talking to their supply chain.

Final thoughts

COP26 has been described as world’s last best chance to get runaway climate change under control. For all of us, the stakes could hardly be higher. Failure to limit global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius risks greater pressures on water and food supplies, increased hunger and poverty and more frequent flooding, storms and heatwaves that threaten plant, animal, and human life.

Yet if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.

Whatever the outcome of the talks in Glasgow, it should now be clear that the circular economy is a vital element in fostering low-carbon growth. And it might even tip the balance in the battle against global warming.


Further reading on waste management from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Image: The Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow: location for COP26. Photo by Stephen O’Donnell on Unsplash

Revisiting the blue economy – a vital part of the world’s environment

This is the third in a series of republished blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange, revisiting important topics with ongoing relevance for public policy and practice, as well as for communities and wider society. This post covers the blue economy, focusing on why it is so important, the current challenges and what is being done to protect it. At the end of the republished article, we’ve updated the post to report on recent developments.

As the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’, increasing attention has been paid to the green economy. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out a vital part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why is the blue economy so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held in 2018. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September 2018, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.

What happened next?

Since this blog was first published in 2019, the world has been turned on its head by the global pandemic. But while COVID-19 has stopped many things in their tracks, the climate crisis is not one of them. The IPCC’s latest report has provided new estimates of the chances of exceeding the 1.5°C global warming level, warning that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

Of course, like so many others, the pandemic has also severely impacted blue economy sectors, which now need further support. The precise impacts of the disruption on the future of the blue economy remain unclear and it has been argued that building strategies that seek to maintain its potential pre-COVID will be challenging. However, the momentum that was building across the globe in committing to growing the blue economy has not halted.

We have now reached the UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) which provides a common framework to ensure that ocean science can fully support countries to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 14 world leaders of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy have committed to sustainably manage 100% of the ocean area under their national jurisdiction by 2025.

Despite delays and constraints, progress has been made by the WTO on harmful fisheries subsidies, with the 12th Ministerial Conference now to take place from 30 November to 3 December 2021.

And following the Scottish Government’s commitment to growing the blue economy, it has since committed to developing a blue economy action plan which will take a joined-up strategic approach across the diverse range of Scotland’s established and emerging marine sectors to maximise the opportunities offered by its abundantly rich marine zone. It will also “seek to help marine sectors and coastal communities to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and grow sustainably whilst also supporting a transition through EU Exit.

If anything, the pandemic has succeeded in emphasising the enormity of the climate emergency and the action required to address it. And the world’s oceans still have a vital role to play in this fight.

As we approach COP26, often billed as our ‘last chance’, it is hoped that outcomes will include “greatly enhanced commitments and resources to meet the challenges presented by the ocean-climate nexus”.


Further reading: articles on climate change from
The Knowledge Exchange blog

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Guest post: Charging ahead – how to make sure the electric vehicle transition is sustainable and just

Without proper planning, an influx of electric vehicles could cause problems for the economy and our energy supply. Joenomias/Pixabay

Rachel Lee, University of Sheffield

Electric vehicles (EVs) are hitting the roads in ever greater numbers. Global EV sales were up by 168% in the first half of 2021 compared to 2020, and are expected to cost the same as – or even less than – combustion (petrol and diesel) cars by 2028 at the latest. Accompanied by proposed government bans on the sale of combustion vehicles in many countries, EVs will be increasingly commonplace over the next decade.

But EV uptake brings its own set of challenges. While the UK’s national energy provider has assured consumers that there is “definitely enough energy” to facilitate mass EV adoption, the problem lies in how to sustainably and cheaply supply cars with power.

Our local networks were not designed to charge millions of cars with energy simultaneously and, as we move towards a zero-carbon electricity system with variable wind and solar generation, the energy may not be there when we need it most.

The key to handling this lies in ensuring EVs are able to affordably charge when there is plenty of wind and sun-driven energy available. Coordinating this requires significant planning and government investment into a smart charging network.

How to charge

When we decide how to charge an EV, a key consideration is the vehicle’s “dwell time” at its charging location.

If the driver is at home for the night or at work for the day – and therefore in no rush to charge – they can use a seven kW charger, a standard home charger in the UK, to charge their car for a week’s driving (about 250km) in an eight hour session. But if the driver decides to charge their car on the same charger while they pop to the supermarket for just 45 minutes, they’ll only get around 30km of extra range: barely enough for a day’s driving.

Dwell times and charging speeds

A chart showing EV dwell times and charging speeds
How long cars parked at different chargers need to power up. Author provided

In the latter situation, a “DC Rapid” charger – which typically provides between 50 to 150kW – is more appropriate. While they are far more expensive – typically at least ten times the cost of a standard home charger – you get what you pay for: using these chargers will provide roughly a week’s driving in just 45 minutes.

The problem with these rapid charges is that, as well as being expensive, they place large demands on electricity infrastructure which could lead to local blackouts. Since, on average, cars spend about 95% of their time parked, you’d ideally want them to be slowly charging from excess renewable energy during that time, with rapid charges reserved for long road trips and occasional emergency charges.

The dashboard seen from inside an electric car at sunset
The Honda e, a new fully electric car, is an example of EV models hitting the market. EVClicks

In future, cars might also help support their local electricity grid by discharging power at times of high demand when renewable generation is low – a technology known as “vehicle-to-grid”. To enable this technology, communication between chargers and cars needs to be a two-way street, allowing drivers to simultaneously charge up and support the grid.

Energy inequality

Access to power is also a financial issue. For those with off-street parking at home, staying plugged in is easy, but many don’t have that option. That means plugged-in households will have access to low-cost travel, whilst those without home charging will face higher costs due to expensive street charging. In the UK, around 7 million households, many on lower incomes, fall into the latter group.

We must widen access to charging not just to help the grid, but also to reduce social inequity. Street chargers could be automatically assigned to the car owner’s account when they plug in, enabling those without home charging to access a full range of services for the same cost as someone with a home charger.

An electric car charges outside a home
Charger availability for EVs could lead to increased inequality. EVClicks

In the UK, we’d need about 750,000 street chargers to ensure that those without home chargers can charge once a week. If we want to make use of the energy storage in those cars to help balance production and consumption from the grid – and to achieve the UK’s net zero target – I’d estimate we’d need up to 5 million chargers. That would require 500 new street chargers to be installed every day between now and 2050.

Using our cars to help balance our grid will likely be cheaper than energy storage alternatives like pumped-storage hydroelectricity or liquid air storage, since we already have some of the infrastructure we need. But to make this happen, car manufacturers, network operators and energy suppliers – and the UK government – must coordinate to put the right chargers in the right places at the right time.

Rachel Lee, PhD Candidate in Electric Vehicle Usage, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more on sustainable transport from The Knowledge Exchange blog