Davos Agenda

How can hyper-local solutions help reduce carbon emissions?

 Live-work symmetry can reduce individual emissions and sustain a low carbon budget.

Live-work symmetry can reduce individual emissions and sustain a low carbon budget. Image: Unsplash/Zachary Staines

Deng Honghao
Chief Executive Officer, Butlr Technologies
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Davos Agenda

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  • As cities are responsible for 70% of carbon emissions, they are a logical starting point for targeted individual carbon reduction.
  • The long-standing goal of each individual only using 2.0 tonnes of carbon by 2050 could now be unrealistic, but 2.5 tonnes of carbon per year is achievable, according to MIT research.
  • Reducing individual carbon budgets to 2.5 tonnes by 2050 will require collaboration from government officials, private property owners, corporations and individuals.

There is a long-held belief that lowering our individual annual carbon budget to 2.0 tonnes will make a significant impact on climate change. While this was once a possibility, the reality is that the goal is no longer achievable, MIT research suggests.

But we can stick to 2.5 tonnes of carbon use each year for every person on the planet, and if we do so, we have an 80% chance of keeping below 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050.

Have you read?

Finding a blueprint for reducing carbon budget

While extreme weather events and consequences of climate change make the problem seem too large and unresolvable, a March 2023 report by the International Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, says it is still possible to keep our increasing warmer climate at relatively safe levels.

Reducing the carbon budget to 2.5 tonnes will make it safer but requires aggressive actions. This is especially true in the United States, where the average individual produces 16 tonnes of carbon per year, according to the Nature Conservancy – one of the highest rates in the world. The average individual carbon budget globally sits closer to 4 tonnes.

However, the City Science research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by Professor Kent Larson, recently conducted a study to lower individual carbon budgets to 2.5 tonnes. Larson is working on a book based on extensive research using algorithmic, dynamic, incentive-based zoning for pro-social development. As a former MIT student, I had the privilege of getting an up-close view into the activities of City Science as part of their recent study on lowering individual carbon footprints.

City Science looked at the United States' Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dubbed the most innovative square mile on the planet. It’s known for its cluster of tech and biotech companies at the edge of the MIT campus; approximately 40,000 individuals enter the area daily.

The flow of people and various transportation into the area is erratic, the majority coming and going midweek. The area produces an average of 17.19 carbon tonnes per person per year.

The MIT City Science group explored ways the ecosystem of Kendall Square can lower individual carbon footprints from 17.19 to 2.5 by 2050 and serve as a blueprint for cities worldwide. The model shows it is possible to reach 2.5 if you rethink and redesign how cities are used for work and life and how we move around within them.

However, it will need the collective efforts of government officials, private property owners, corporations and individuals to work together.

Multiple interventions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per person from 17.19 to 2.50 tonnes.
Multiple interventions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per person from 17.19 to 2.50 tonnes. Image: Gabriela Bílá, MIT Media Lab City Science Group

Reaching 2.0 by 2050

Based on the Kendall Square research project, here is how we can work together to achieve the goal. It starts by rethinking how cities are used, especially since they are responsible for 70% of emissions and 90% of population growth and wealth creation.

Let's go back to 17.19, the annual individual carbon footprint measured in carbon tonnes at Kendall Square and look at the proposed actions:

  • Use of solar and wind energy and electric vehicles. Specifically, using solar and wind energy can reduce emissions to 15.81. Switching to electric vehicles lowers the number to 15.50.
  • Hybrid work. Next, factor in hybrid work policies with employees coming into the office three days a week and you reduce the number to 15.30.
  • Retrofitting old buildings with newer technologies. Now consider retrofitting older buildings. Using newer technologies, including the fusion of artificial intelligence and body heat sensing technology to create people-aware sensors, lowers the number to 14.30.
  • Live work symmetry. During the retrofit planning, if more people lived in the city while schools, entertainment, parks, shopping and work were all within walking distance, it could bring a substantial positive environmental and socioeconomic impact. It will also lead to better innovation opportunities, improved safety and overall well-being, which will help reduce the number to 8.54.
  • Dynamic, incentive-based, algorithmic zoning. Restricted zoning is the greatest barrier to climate change solutions. Changing the laws to support more mixed-use buildings, including allocating areas for pro-social development such as central housing or daycare, has a positive social, economic and environmental impact.
  • Hyper-efficient living spaces. Further, creating hyper-efficient living spaces where walls are easy to move and beds can be lowered from the ceiling, for example, can double space utilization. The MIT study shows these combined actions can reduce the carbon budget to 8.20.
Hyper-efficient living spaces: robotic reconfigurable furniture to achieve the same functionality of a bigger floor plan with a smaller footprint.
Hyper-efficient living spaces: robotic reconfigurable furniture to achieve the same functionality of a bigger floor plan with a smaller footprint. Image: Hasier Larrea, Ori Living
  • Lightweight community mobility. Recognizing that transportation will still be necessary, innovations in lightweight, autonomous electric vehicles are emerging. They replace the need for cars while bringing the carbon budget down to 8.17 per person.

Further carbon reduction to arrive at 5.90 comes from switching to local food production.

And last but not least, we need help and support from everyone. With less reliance on air travel, we can lower the budget to 4.13. And when you power the internet through zero energy servers and local manufacturers, you arrive at 2.5.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Davos AgendaClimate and NatureCities and Urbanization
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