Climate Action

Digital twin technology can help decarbonize cities. Here's how

Skyscrapers on the Chicago waterfront

Cities worldwide account for around 70% of global carbon emissions and consume over two-thirds of the world's energy. Image: Pedro Lastra for Unsplash

Michael Jansen
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Cityzenith
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Engineering and Construction

  • Buildings and construction are a major contributor to carbon emissions in cities worldwide.
  • Digital twin technology creates a simulation of a physical object or a service, in order to help owners and planners operate more efficiently.
  • Widespread adoption of digital twin technology could help in the race to reach net zero by 2050.

For the world's cities, the carbon emissions challenge is increasingly urgent. Cities worldwide account for around 70% of global carbon emissions and consume over two-thirds of the world's energy. Cities across the USA, including Miami, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego, are all predicted to be at least partially – if not entirely – underwater by 2050. At current rates, North Jakarta is expected to be 95% underwater by 2050, while approximately 43 million to 57 million people in China currently live on land that will be underwater by the end of the 21st century.

Construction within urban areas is a significant contributor to global warming. The sector accounts for 38% of all energy-related CO2 emissions, increasing in 2019 to their highest level yet at around 10 GtCO2. We need technological solutions that will help to manage and monitor how we build or refit our urban infrastructure for a safer, sustainable future.

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Digital twin technology could play a central part in decarbonizing our built environment. A digital twin is a computer program that uses real-world data to create a simulation of a physical object – like a building – or a service. It can help to predict how a product or process will perform, and help to optimize all aspects of design, construction, operations and management.

Building owners, city planners and governments can use digital twins to track, manage and minimize emissions from both new and old buildings, as well as during construction. It can also predict traffic flow, or control individual room temperature. Ernst and Young reported in June that digital twins could save up to 35% on the project and building costs and help reduce carbon emissions within our cities within between 50% and 100%.

Currently, the construction industry is highly inefficient, and buildings are often over budget and delayed. Research from the Saïd Business School at Oxford University found that 90% of the world's infrastructure projects are late or over budget. Berlin Brandenburg airport was nine years late on completion and 66,500 errors were made during construction. If a project such as this had used digital twin technology, these errors might have been reduced, saving time and money, and most importantly minimizing carbon emissions.

Digital twin technology can be applied to both new build and existing buildings. Half of all existing buildings were built between 1960 and 1999, with 21% built before 1960. They are poorly-insulated and energy-inefficient. As a result, buildings contribute to 40% of overall emissions in cities. Digital twin technology could help transform how we deal with energy transition within our major cities. We have even demonstrated reductions in temperature within cities by 8% based on India's recent smart city project.

Global greenhouse gas emissions by sector
Half of all existing buildings were built between 1960 and 1999. They are poorly-insulated and energy-inefficient. Image: Our World in Data

City planners can make efficiencies on a citywide scale too, by tracking emissions across the board. Considering US cities are underreporting their carbon emissions by an average of 18.3%, this would be a valuable asset; digital twin technology could mean more accurate data on emission output and where emissions are coming from. It could also map weather patterns through simulations and offer smart solutions for some of the world's most important coastal cities. Buildings could be tested to see whether they can withstand predicted weather outcomes.

The construction industry now has financial incentives to solve some of its inefficiency problems. Digital twin technology could help it to meet its carbon reduction goals.

Cityzenith's 'Clean Cities, Clean Future' campaign, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum Global Innovators community, 2030 Districts, the Green Building Council and the Digital Twin Consortium, aims to increase the uptake of digital twin technology.

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Climate ActionUrban Transformation
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