The urban energy-transport-infrastructure nexus

The urban energy-transport-infrastructure nexus

Happy World Cities Day 2016! Didn’t you know? October 31st is UN World Cities Day, designed to generate interest in the opportunities and challenges of global urbanisation.

Such a focus is essential. Cities are already home to more than half the world’s population and consume more than two thirds of global energy. The current mass migration to cities is unlikely to let-up either – by 2030 it is estimated cities will be home to two thirds of all humanity. The energy consequences of that alone are a global challenge.

Most power and food consumed in urban areas each day is imported into the city limits. The voracious appetite of cities for food and energy is therefore a serious challenge to policy makers. We live in a world experiencing growing constraints in the supply of renewable and non-renewable resources and energy and also one likely to be severely buffeted by global environmental and social change, such as climate change and mass migration.

These are the challenges the UN Habitat III Conference in Quito recently set out to explore and are set out on the New Urban Agenda, the main declaration to emerge from the conference. Unsurprisingly, the complex and dynamic nature of cities meant integration and coordination of policy domains are key themes in the declaration.

‘Integrated’ approaches to policy have been de rigueur since the early 1990s, with the introduction of integrated water resource management, which demanded the co-ordination of policies and actions in water management to reflect the interconnectivity and dependencies in the water cycle. Integrated approaches followed in the management of waste and of transport, leading to much improved outcomes in these policy areas, despite many gains being overwhelmed by increases in waste production and transport demand.

Taking the integrated approach one step further, the ‘nexus’ concept arose from the need to further explore relationships between or across policy and disciplinary boundaries, taking a systems approach to how the different policy areas interact and respond to changes in each other. Nexus approaches attempt to reduce competition for resources between the policy areas, optimise trade-offs and maximising synergies between policy arenas and thus try to avoid unintended consequences and inefficiencies creeping in elsewhere through sub-optimal policy implementation.

The water-energy-food nexus (or sometimes the water-energy-food-land nexus) has gained considerable academic attention in recent years, highlighting the importance of understanding interlinkages between these areas in achieving pathways towards more sustainable development.

What the Habitat III conference highlighted, perhaps without acknowledging it, was the importance of opening a new front in nexus approaches to pursuing sustainability goals: that of the urban energy-transport-infrastructure nexus.

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Traditional town and city planning has a long association with transport and infrastructure planning, through zoning of cities and steering the location of employment and services towards area served well with major transport links. (TODs, or transport orientated developments, became the goal.) This ‘integrated’ planning approach often had transport efficiency, rather than specifically energy efficiency, as the primary goal: to increase the capacity of transport links to move more people and goods, more quickly. Often this meant just more roads for private vehicles. Hence, a third element of this new nexus (energy), was only indirectly acknowledged.

For example, this approach defined transport modes (cars, buses, trains) as merely passive consumers of energy, deployed in pursuit of moving more people and goods from one place to another in a shorter time. Instead, today’s technology, with the right infrastructure, can transform transport modes into active nodes in a city’s energy generation and distribution systems.

Technologies can turn buildings, road surfaces and parked cars into solar farms and then these vehicles act as batteries for storage and distribution of energy between nodes (houses and buildings). And these nodes are now ‘prosumers’; that is, active in both production and consumption of energy. Meanwhile, Internet technologies have whittled down transaction costs, such that the generation, sale and consumption of energy can be operate as a highly liquid and efficient market, through micro-payment systems, quietly trading capacity while you work, commute and sleep.

And consumer- and commercial-level batteries and more energy efficient homes and buildings are enabling short term energy storage to become realistic and valuable nodes in the system, diminishing the impacts of the variability inherent in many renewable energy technologies.

Another example is the deployment of green infrastructure to fulfil the functions of traditional hard infrastructure, such as regulation of the hydrological cycle and heating and cooling of buildings. Whilst engineering solutions often solve one problem extremely well, often other policy domains and outcomes are ignored. Green infrastructure importantly supplies benefits outside its primary function. Co-benefits of green infrastructure include improving the liveability of urban areas, by supporting more active and healthy lifestyles (cooler, more accessible public spaces), reduced energy costs for buildings and support urban biodiversity. Cooler cities are more attractive cities for walking and cycling as a mode of transport, encouraging better health outcomes as well as saving energy imports into the city ecosystem and protecting against more extreme heatwaves.

In the American, Canadian and Australian cities, political investment in appropriate urban densification in support of the energy-transport-infrastructure nexus, where the right mix of commercial development, housing types, energy generating infrastructure and open space, can quickly lead to a significant uptake of sustainable transport options. A city needs not be as dense as Hong Kong to encourage people out of their cars.

SDGs as policy drivers

As guiding framework the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a useful framework for assessing the potency of the nexus approach. Policies and strategies that account for the energy-infrastructure-transport nexus can find synergies that contribute directly and indirectly to the achievement of a number of the goals and targets.

SD7 iconSDG7 (Access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy): ensuring rapid urbanisation is met with the provision of reliable, sustainably-produced and efficiently-used energy, through retrofitting developed world cities and ensuring developing world cities are set on the path to achieving the nexus.

SDG11 iconSDG11 (Inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and settlements): promoting sustainable urbanisation and improving access to sustainable transport and public places. (Indeed, target 11.b is almost the definition of the energy-transport-infrastructure nexus.)

SDG9 iconSDG9 (Infrastructure): encouraging the development of resilient infrastructure, the promotion of inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and the fostering of innovation, again emphasising the importance of putting developing world cities on a pathway towards sustainable urbanisation.

In addition, there would be spill over benefits that contribute to further targets in others goals, including:

SDG3 (Healthy lives and well-being): reducing the number of deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents, non-communicable diseases (by promoting healthier lifestyles) and from air pollution.

SDG8 (Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work) by boosting investments in the required energy and transport and building infrastructure, boosting productivity through energy efficiency, improving access to work for employees and markets for goods and services by improved transport efficiency and decoupling economic growth from resource and material throughput.

SDG13 (Climate action) by encourage resilient and adaptive urban growth and energy production and distribution.

Conversely, poor policy co-ordination in the energy, transport and energy sectors, which do not account for knock-on consequences in the other policy domains, make delivering on the targets in the SDGs more inefficient.

Any nexus approach should try to ensure the benefits from synergies out-weigh the transaction costs of the increased coordination between policy domains; in intra– and inter-governmental co-ordination. Political and jurisdictional barriers remain as significant as financial barriers in investing in the infrastructure required for the transition to an energy and transport efficient city.

For example, the private sector remains cautious of more onerous building regulations that demand green infrastructure or energy generating appliances, which place additional costs on developers, despite demonstrative term savings in energy costs for consumers.

But the biggest barrier is policy co-ordination between different levels of government, responsible for different policy levers in a city’s infrastructure and economy and with often corporatised, or wholly privatised utilities. In addition, cities are often subject competing political influences in the provision of these services and infrastructure.

For example, in Australia, the federal government has a long standing convention in only funding significant road projects (through public-private-partnerships), whilst public transport capital investment is the responsibility of the states. This is division of responsibility achieves poor outcomes due to a vertical fiscal imbalance, with the states and local governments having limited options for additional tax raising measures.

And not only is there a fiscal imbalance in tax raising powers, often the benefits of policy action in one domain are not captured by the level of government implementing the policy. For example, a municipal government delivering a bikeway network, instead of a more politically valuable new road, will not earn the longer term financial benefits of the reduced burden on a health system from subsequent reductions in communicable diseases, less road traffic accidents and improved air quality. Nor will it gain benefit from reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

And while the benefits (or avoided future costs) rarely flow to municipal governments, they are likely to be best positioned to drive the energy-transport-infrastructure nexus. Strategic planning, conditions on development controls and the community links to ensure policies are prosecuted with community engagement are powerful levers and tools. However, co-ordinating building regulations, corporatized utilities and financing of significant transport projects often currently remain beyond the scope.

But city governments are growing in competency, economic power and stature, which has seen the emergence of the concept of ‘global cities’ as major drivers of economic growth and the most dynamic and influential spatial units of organisation, transcending national and state governments and becoming players on the global stage. For example, 69 city governments signed up for the Paris Pledge for Action, demonstrating they meet the requirements to hold the planet to 2 degrees of warming.

Under the right conditions, the energy-transport-infrastructure nexus approach could mean the rapid urbanisation the world is experiencing is more of an opportunity than a threat to meeting the targets in SDGs.

Mapping strategies and policies to SDGs

Altus Impact is well positioned to help your organisation (government or corporate) map its products, services, plans and strategies to reaching the targets in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Understanding the complex interlinkages and assessing synergies and blockages can help optimise operations for greater cost-effectiveness.

Contact Altus Impact to find out how we can help you plan for the SDGs.

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