Sunday, February 1, 2009

Energy and Human Settlements: Problems & Opportunities

Brian D. Williams
Transport and Energy Specialist

Cities and Energy
Historically, cities throughout the world have been arenas of tremendous social and economic development. The higher densities of people and material resources found in urban areas allows significant gains in productivity to be achieved, while reducing the human impacts on natural ecosystems. These higher densities also make it easier to provide basic services to citizens and as a result, urban areas should also have the potential to offer better health, education, sanitation and electrical services than are found in rural areas. However, while these benefits of economies of scale in urban agglomerations do accrue to residents of the more developed countries, they do not very often accrue to residents in developing country cities, particular in relation to the provision of energy services.
Indeed, developing country cities require a rapid increase in energy production and consumption to accelerate economic development, alleviate poverty and meet basic needs of their populations. However, energy-related pollution is already negatively affecting human health and living environments, particularly within informal urban settlements.
As cities contribute approximately 75% to global energy consumption and most of their energy is derived from fossil fuels, they very significantly contribute to global warming.
For sustainable energy development and use in human settlements, the primary challenge is to provide equitable and affordable access to energy services for all urban residents in an economically efficient and environmentally sound manner.

Access to Urban Energy Services
Access to affordable, modern energy services is a pre-requisite for sustainable development and poverty alleviation, and, more specifically, for achieving each of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Lack of access to reliable, safe and mostly environmentally –friendly energy is a strong constraint on human development. Energy services can play a variety of direct and indirect roles to help achieve MDGs.
Stand-alone renewable energy systems such as photo-voltaic solar panels with storage batteries can require as much energy to produce as they generate in their lifetime –primarily due to the batteries – making such systems less sustainable as well as substantially more expensive, than conventional grid electricity. Investment in renewable energy in areas served by a grid in therefore economic and sustainable only if the consumer can buy energy from a grid when required and sell surplus consumer-generated energy to the grid, thus eliminating the need for storage batteries as well as making full use of alternative energy technologies available such as wind or sunlight or other renewable sources. Cities can also play a significant role in energy demand reduction. The building, construction and transport sectors consume vast amounts of energy and in many developing countries cities these sectors are fast growing.

The potential for energy savings in these sectors at very low - and in some cases negative - costs is very significant.

Sustainable Urban Transport and Climate Change
In today's cities, sustainable transportation systems are crucial to fostering economic activity and raising standards of urban living. Finding a transport model that meets society's need to move freely, communicate, and gain access to jobs, education, hospitals, and other facilities - all without sacrificing essential human or ecological values - is thus a primary challenge of sustainable development.
Transportation systems define the quality of life for millions of city-dwellers worldwide. Unfortunately, the negative impacts of urban transport, including hazardous levels of air pollution, congestion, noise, sprawl, and threats to public safety, restrict the potential for greater economic growth and happiness. The rise of megacities, with populations over ten million, has only amplified these problems. Growth rates of private vehicle ownership in the developing world continue to soar, despite the fact that automobiles are major consumers of non-renewable energy and major contributors to carbon emissions.

The Way Forward
As we know, the new millennium is ushering in a new urbanized era. Increased access to energy will be part of the problem but also part of the solution. While rapid urbanization is associated with an attendant rise in energy demand which can potentially threatened the sustainability of both human settlements and the larger urban environment, many of the negative effects of urbanization can be, at least, partially mitigated by innovative energy policies. UN-Habitat remains committed to pursuing those innovations and to promoting the development, use and transfer of policies, environmentally sound technologies, economic instruments, managerial practices and other tools that assist in environmentally sound decision making and in the building of corresponding capacities in the energy and transport sectors.

* Copyrights: International Urban Training Center