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The Impact of Sustainable Cities

It’s the year 2050 and you’re sitting on-board a driverless car, cruising through a city akin to the setting of a sci-fi movie. From the window, you see solar panel-clad skyscrapers, swathes of lush vegetation and clutter-free pavements. The once ubiquitous electricity pylon now lies dormant – it hasn’t been used for decades.

According to the UK’s Clean Growth Strategy manifesto, this is what our future cities could look like. In this, the government plans to meet its ongoing commitment to the 2008 Climate Change Act – under which the UK must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent (when compared against 1990 levels) by 2050.

According to the strategy’s executive summary, the UK’s emissions have fallen by 42 per cent since 1990 – which suggests that we are moving in the right direction. From improved energy efficiency for houses to advancements in recycling, we are beginning to gain an insight into what our cities may be capable of in the future.

Inspired by the Crystal’s Future of Cities exhibition and this year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, we discuss some of the fantastic work currently being done to create a greener future for our cities.


In order to reduce greenhouse gas to the levels set out by the Clean Growth Strategy (an 80 per cent downturn by 2050), we must tackle the fuel emissions currently consuming our roads. Cars and freight lorries are the main contributors to roadside nitrogen oxide (NO2) levels, which, in turn, can lead to life-debilitating diseases like acute bronchitis, as well as acid rain in the atmosphere.

As a result, different companies and research centres across the UK are showing how our transport systems can be more sustainable:

CRESS Systems, Darlington

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Emerging from the labs of BP and refined at the University of Reading, a terminal operator has found a way to harness energy at some of the country’s busiest shipping ports.

Partially funded by the Northern Powerhouse Initiative, CRESS Systems has built a flywheel storage device which recovers ‘degraded’ energy from heat sources, vibrations and noise.

An electric motor recaptures kinetic energy by rotating a heavy disc, which then helps to reduce CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Thus, stored energy reduces the electricity consumption of port facilities, such as container cranes.

The company plans to target the smart grid market in the future, using their current system to algorithmically control power stations.

The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight Transport, University of Cambridge

Working with some of the biggest names in the motor industry, the University of Cambridge and Heriot-Watt University’s Logistics Research Centre have developed new aerodynamic designs for freight lorries.

These designs help to cut fuel consumption and emissions from freight lorries by approximately seven per cent. Fuel currently represents 45 per cent (avg.) of operating costs in the freight industry, so minimising the use of diesel is imperative.

Modified vehicles have shown a 14 per cent reduction in aerodynamic drag coefficient, as their designs offer less wind resistance and streamline air flow. This is achieved by a tapered boat tail, lowered overall height and smooth trailer underside.

Land Use

The Crystal’s Future of Cities exhibition shows that city temperatures are expected to increase by 1 degree Celsius per decade (when compared to rural areas). Between 20-30 per cent of plant and animal species also risk extinction if average temperatures exceed 1.5-2.5 degrees Celsius.

Siemens’ energy expert, Matthew Knight, explains how local governments are helping to reduce annual city temperatures:

“We often think of sustainable energy coming from remote rural areas, but cities have a great part to play too. There is the possibility of introducing more solar panels to flat rooftops or high-rise buildings. For instance, the Co-op building in Manchester is clad in solar panels, which it uses to harness electricity. This is a perfect example of optimising on current city developments.”

By improving how we manage energy in buildings, we can mitigate some of the major causes of climate change. This is just one example of how organisations across the UK are already changing the way they generate and store energy:

The Crystal, London

The Crystal is a state-of-the-art all-electric building situated in the centre of London. Electricity is generated by solar photovoltaic roof panels, of which cover two-thirds of The Crystal’s roof.

The building also has a full blackwater recycling facility, which is usually designed as a system for a city or a borough. This system ensures roughly 95 per cent of water is reused across the premises.

These developments, along with energy-efficient ventilation systems, lighting controls and a weather station, have helped to reduce The Crystal’s carbon emissions by 70 per cent (when compared with the average office building in the UK).

City of Trees Project, Manchester

City of Trees has transformed underused woodland by planting more than 220,000 trees across Greater Manchester. The organisation’s goal is to plant a tree for every man, woman and child who lives in Greater Manchester, within a generation.

Trees yield myriad benefits, including reducing surface water by 60 per cent and storing up to 25 per cent of the world’s carbon. Air pollution is also reduced whenever carbon is stored.


The Clean Growth Strategy has set out to reduce carbon emissions in the power sector by switching to renewable sources. Since 1990, emissions in the UK have dropped 49 per cent, with increasing numbers of people switching to wind and solar power. By 2050, the government aims to reduce emissions from the power sector to zero.

Buildings and the industrial sector are the first areas to be targeted by the UK government – together they create around 32 per cent of total UK carbon emissions. To combat this, the UK government aims to decarbonise nearly all heat in buildings and most industrial processes by 2050.

Matthew Knight further explains how cities are reducing their reliance on the National Grid:

“The UK is surrounded by shallow water and sits in the windy corner of Europe, so is naturally blessed with plenty of wind power. The North Sea, for instance, has the windy potential to provide all of Europe’s energy needs.

It is revelations such as this which many cities have already taken into account; there are currently four offshore wind farms in the Thames Estuary, including London Array, the world’s largest. Each wind farm currently pumps clean electricity into the capital city”.

Thanks to the hard work of many education centres and energy companies across the country, we have already seen significant improvements in energy storage.

BBOXX, London

BBOXX is an off-grid lighting system which uses 50W solar panels to power homes. Students of Imperial College London designed BBOXX as an efficient alternative to expensive power systems, with much of their work focussed on rural African communities, where the electric grid is unreliable.

Since its launch in 2010, more than 150,000 off-grid electric systems have been deployed across the globe. The company plans to power 20 million homes using BBOXX by 2020.

Oxis Energy, Oxfordshire

Oxis Energy is one of the first UK companies to produce a battery for electric vehicles. Made with Lithium Sulphur [Li-S], this battery has a theoretical energy density five times greater than Li-ion.

The company utilises sulphur in place of heavy metals, to limit the effects of mining, such as water pollution in lakes and streams.

A further benefit is the battery’s cycle life – it extends to approximately 1,500 cycles compared to just 1,000 cycles (maximum) of average batteries. Future generations of the Oxis battery are expected to reach 2,500 cycles. More efficient batteries will likely be a key driver for those seeking electric vehicles in the future.

Electric vehicles have seen an increase in usage over the years, with usage increasing thirtyfold between 2011-2016. This is arguably due to the availability of cheaper battery packs.

Matthew Knight emphasises why we need to eliminate the use of fossil fuels:

“For several years to come, we will still require some fossil fuels to feed into the National Grid. New developments, such as energy storage and electric vehicles will continue the transformation of our energy system.

As of now, the best thing we can do from a personal and business perspective is to use energy intelligently. Something to ask ourselves is whether we need the energy in the first place. If the answer is yes, we should look towards renewable energy sources as the first port of call”.

How will you work with your local government, school or university to tackle climate change? Visit the Crystal to find out more about how you could make environmental changes in your city.


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