Sustainable urban futures: why ‘Covid-19 emissions dip’ was not enough

Covid-19 lockdowns saw a dip in carbon emissions in 2020, but is this enough to spark sustainable, long-lasting change? Jonathan Weinert of Signify believes we still have some work to do…

One of the few positive side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the resurgence of the sustainability agenda. The intensification of lockdowns in spring 2020 saw emissions fall, the return of native wildlife and slightly less cloudy skies over cities by day. This was the first time in recent history people saw a glimpse of what life could look like with a real reduction of emissions.

Unfortunately, the reduction is likely to be temporary. The year’s reduction of between 4.2 per cent and 7.5 per cent amount to just a small ‘blip’ on a long-term graph of emissions production which is still steadily moving upward. While Covid-19 presented an opportunity to place the rise in carbon emissions back on the table, a lot still needs to be done in order to forge a long-term fix.

This article sets out to find solutions to help reconceive the built environment with sustainability at the centre of development. One of the key solutions in the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is laying the foundation for an entirely new concept of how to build, operate, and maintain urban centres and the structures that comprise them.

2021 marks a turning point for smart cities and smart building development as deal such as the European Green Deal and other similar climate-neutral programs make sustainable construction the rule, not the exception.

‘IoT is laying the foundation for an entirely new concept of how to build, operate, and maintain urban centres…’

Signify, the world leader in connected and LED lighting, has created a Green Switch program which offers many LED and connected lighting capabilities that business and municipalities can use to drive participation in all five of the Green Deal’s flagship initiatives.

The smart city promise

Smart cities use integrated sensor-based technology, powered by data analytics, too make urban life better for city dwellers. Among other things, this means making cities cleaner, more efficient and greener.

Smart cities are responsive to the daily ebbs and flows of urban life. People-counting sensors located throughout transport lines can collect masses of passenger-usage data which can then be interpreted by data analytics applications and generate insights which inform transport scheduling and routing. This means that transport is only dispatched in response to actual need, which saves energy and emissions.

Parking automobiles in their place

It is difficult to foresee an urban centre without automobiles, and for the most part they will still have a place in new smart cities. But it will function as one useful transportation mode among others, rather than a default or privileged mode.

Smart cities will respond to real-time traffic conditions to help better circulate traffic at different points in the day. In turn, this means fewer emissions. Sensors will also efficiently steer drivers to likely parking spots by indicating empty spaces on smart devices and providing directions to them.

Lighting a new urban path

Connected lighting systems are poised to play a leading role in cutting urban emissions. Lighting can account for up to half of a city’s energy use due to street lights illuminating areas when there is no one around. Smart cities combat this through sensor-enabled lighting systems which recognise when a street is in use and illuminates the spaces that need light. Lights can simply be dimmed at night when the space is not in use to provide basic public safety. LED and connected lighting can offer one of the simplest and most often overlooked paths to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment by using up to 70 per cent less energy than their counterparts.

Smart grid to the rescue

The smart energy grid uses sensors along the entire energy distribution network to establish two-way communication between utilities and energy consumers in the system. Such smart systems have be projected to cut emissions by 3.9 per cent by 2030.

‘Smart systems can operate with a responsiveness and agility that traditional operating models cannot…’

A smart grid can operate with a responsiveness and agility that the traditional grid cannot. Take the smart home energy meter as an example. Not only do smart meters measure electricity use in real time, they also share that data with consumer via an app. Consumers can see exactly where they’re wasting energy and can adjust their habits to better conserve it. At the same time, smart meters feed data about household energy use back to the utility, where it’s analysed to help the utility operate more efficiently. Utilities can also use this data to promote consumer responsibility by rewarding ‘green’ behaviour. Households that use less energy during peak hours might receive financial benefits for their role in flattering the demand curve.

A revolution in HVAC

In commercial buildings, such as office blocks, smart tech will consistently record energy consumption throughout the space. This allows building managers to understand where waste is occurring and adjust the building appropriately to reduce energy waste. Occupancy-sensing technology can ensure that unused or underused parts of the building don’t function as hard as occupied areas of the building. Heating and colling can instantly and automatically come up to a normal level when people do enter the space.

IoT systems in smart buildings will also react to local environmental changes in a way that can create unprecedented efficiencies. Sensor-based systems can turn down the AC as clouds obscure the sun or turn up the warmth on a windy winter day.

LED efficiency for buildings

LED-based smart technology can make street lighting vastly more efficient. Smart lighting can automatically adjust the brightness of the LED lights that it controls depending on changing environmental conditions.

Smart lighting also helps build the digital infrastructure that is crucial for adaptability, optimal operation, and efficient maintenance. Connected lighting is considered a ‘spearhead’ technology for smart cities as it offers one of the quickest and most dependable routes to implementing a smart city platform that can eventually integrate many systems.

It all adds up

The numbers associated with smart building technology are very attractive when projected in the longer-term. In both urban planning and construction, smart technologies can help avert the disaster scenarios predicted by the emissions crisis. As cities turn to smart infrastructure and connected lighting for answers, a green and more sustainable future is looking bright.

Signify is a Global Partner of WORKTECH Academy. Jonathan Weinert is an award-wining thought leadership writer for Signify and has been researching and reporting on LED lighting, connected lighting, and the IoT since joining Signify in 2008.
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