Environmental Sustainability: How to Orient the Discussion

By Lily Deng

Our course is on sustainable cities, but one under-discussed area of sustainability in our course is environmental sustainability. I was surprised that our case on Masdar vs. Tianjin became largely about the cool vs. less cool, the high-tech vs. low-tech, the greenfield vs. brownfield, the new vs. retro-fitted space. While all those items warrant discussion, I thought that the environmental impact of cities ought to be a higher priority in our course consciousness. For example, a major section of the case was on Reinventing the City to Combat Climate Change, but it is unclear from the case how Masdar and Tianjin are specifically combating climate change.  Here is how we might unpack these issues.

As the case notes:

  • “Cities are responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions”
  • “China alone is estimated to generated…16 percent of all new urban area in developing countries”
  • The Masdar Initiative was designed to pursue “solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues: energy security, climate change and truly sustainable human development”
  • “Nearly 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions…already emanate from cities, and that number is expected to grow as the world’s population moves towards the 9 billion mark…”

Thus, instead of thinking merely about piecemeal issues that involve high project-on-project risk, I think we should be proactively discussing the broader global environmental factors. The topics we’ve covered in class are extremely important business and design considerations, but do not get at the heart of environmental stability. These topics include, but are not limited to: public-private partnerships, PRT vs. BRT vs. MRT, lease vs. own, partner vs. develop internally vs. sub-contract, and so on and so forth.

Here’s how I propose we might orient our discussion forward instead.

Approach 1: Concentration Curve

As Jessica mentioned in class, there is often $100 of environmental savings, but it’s sometimes in pennies. That may be the case in many areas, but there are likely many areas where the Pareto Principle applies.

For example, the UAE’s primary source of industrial activity is oil and natural gas, which represents 85% of its economy. Both of these are highly intensive processes from extraction to export. In terms of a concentration curve of environmental impact, most of the environmental impact, I’d wager to guess, is in the oil and natural gas sector, not in its cities. Thus, with the $15B spent on Masdar, much could have been done to reduce the environmental impact of the largest and most damaging sectors.

The opposite is true of Tianjin. In this case, the bulk of the environmental damage is concentrated in the city and not its industrial processes – its core manufacturing activities are far less exhaustive that then energy consumption in the cities. However, even in this case, there are ways to isolate the specific needs. For example:

Category % Economy % GHG
Activity 1 40 25
Activity 2 20 20
Activity 3 15 5
Activity 4 15 30
Activity 5 10 20

Having a view such as this one would quickly identify that we should be cutting Activities 4 and 5 because they disproportionately impact the environment relative to their economic contribution.

Approach 2: Dashboard of Levers

The second approach focuses on specific problems and understand specific levers to address these. For example, in a city with high traffic congestion and high car emissions, we can reduce this via increase car registration taxes, limited car registrations (eg, Singapore), introducing consumption pricing (eg, Hong Kong), increasing tolls, increasing incentives for mass transit, and so on and so forth. Each of these have expected cost to implement and expected shift in behavior.

A different way to look at this would also be from a cost per incremental improvement perspective. For each $1M invested, how much return can you gain in each area of environmental sustainability (or each unit of improvement vs. baseline)?

A final way to think of the dashboard is addressing the real economic, political, and other factors to figure out constrained optimization. Cities may agree to keep some levers constant because they are too distant, too costly, or too infeasible for another matter, but work with a set of variables they can improve. They can pair, for example, the pro forma on increase ridership, the cost per incremental passenger, the total cost per passenger mile, and merge that information with known details on the environmental impacts of bus transit vs. personal cars. This would provide a far more comprehensive view of sustainability that discussed today.

* * *

Back to Masdar and Tianjin, I was surprised that the discussion seemed to split largely along design vs. business lines. Designers want to work with Masdar, business folks want to work on Tianjin. Luckily there are people who bridge design and business talent and help make cities going forward much more thoughtful and sustainable than in the past.

–end-

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One thought on “Environmental Sustainability: How to Orient the Discussion

  1. By John Macomber

    Very promising approach to look at a concentration curve and then levers to fit the situation. Thank you. I’ll be interested to observe whether this construct resonates with others in the class. It would be really excellent to think up a parallel concentration curve and levers around jobs, livability, “purpose” of the city and similar hard-to-quantify aspects.

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