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Are smart cities a solution to the climate crisis?

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

For the first blog post of the academic year, Oliver Ind argues that Smart Cities could help counter climate change. This article looks at radical initiatives such as Saudi Arabia's 'The Line' alongside smaller ideas, such as increased public transportation investment. Ind grounds his argument in a criticism that city infrastructure isn't smart enough and exacerbates climate change.


We are facing a mega challenge. While governments face astounding pressure to achieve Net-Zero targets, the nature of our infrastructure makes these goals near impossible to meet. Our cities are carbon epicentres, rife with pollution, with nasty micro-climates and petrol-car reliance. Cities are one of the biggest hurdles we face in global sustainable development.

We have known about the catastrophic consequences of anthropogenic climate change for quite some time. A meaningful consensus has existed since the 1980s. Yet, inaction has continued – maybe it is time to look for different solutions. Maybe we should end the war against energy firms and start looking for a more pragmatic solution. I believe that this solution lies within the city. 56% of the human population lives in a city (World Bank 2022) – surely just this fact alone is convincing in itself? This analysis will explore global reliance on poor city infrastructure, whilst highlighting how smart cities, such as Saudi Arabia’s “The Line” could help solve this.

Imagine this. A city that is only 200 metres wide, but an astonishing 170 kilometres long (Neom 2022). It seems like a pretty whack idea, right? But there is a reason for this, and it has immense merit. Not only will the peculiar design fit nicely into the landscape with its reflective sides. But the whole idea of a linear city – first developed by urban planner Arturo Soria y Mata in the late 19th century – will allow for more efficient infrastructure, including transportation, water, energy, etc. This design undoubtedly has the ability to create a “new benchmark in sustainable development” (The Conversation). But this isn’t the most impressive thing about “The Line” – the smart city will also be temperature and climate controlled, with its walls reflecting off the desert heat. This all seems not just impressive, but innovative, even revolutionary. But, I am also hesitant to accept it, especially given Saudi's place as a rogue and non-green state. So, Is it all hype?

(Figure 1 – Suffolk Gazette)

To be blunt, yes. We must be realistic, we must admit that this is not a “solution.", we must look to the real world. The Line is radical, costly, and surely can’t be replicated around the world. It is not a perfect solution; we need to find solutions at home.

It is better to look at how we can adapt our current cities to make them ‘smarter.’ A good start is through public transportation. This may be a climate cliché, but that’s for good reason. A lack of public transportation means increased reliance on road networks, increasing congestion and thus carbon emissions. North American cities are particularly bad in this respect – see figure 2 depicting Houston, Texas, an American city with notoriously bad public transit. If Houston invested in a public transit network, it may well be profitable, whilst also good for the environment. Traffic in Houston is bad, thus most rational humans will start taking public transport if it is more efficient.

(Figure 2 – World Highways)

Transportation infrastructure is not the only way to be climate smart. There have been recent innovations in architecture that allow us to build with, not on the environment. Take this impressive ‘urban forest’ currently in development in China (Figure 3). Every year in the ‘Liuzhou Forest City’ trees absorb roughly 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and produce circa 900 tons of oxygen. (World Economic Forum). With the increasing climate consciousness and individual respect one has for their environment, demand to live in areas such as these will surely be high. Thus, rational producers will build more of these and thus, more supertree cities will be born!

(Figure 3 – World Economic Forum)

This analysis is by no means exhaustive. The truth is that there are a plethora of ways, besides global conferences, to mitigate the catastrophic impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Whether it be ambitious smart-city projects like ‘The Line,’ or more achievable local approaches like investment in infrastructure or urban forestry, solutions exist. It is clear that the current efforts – through the endless bureaucracy of COP – are never going to work. My conclusion is plain and simple – we need to rid our focus on transnational conferences – it doesn’t work, and it won’t. Rather, we need to explore other solutions. As great as 'The Line' sounds, we need to be pragmatic with these solutions - the most effective will be small scale ones, like public transport. We can, of course, still be optimists - I would be delighted to see COP conferences work. But, we must look at it in the same way as 'The Line,' with a glimmer of sceptical hope in the back of our minds.

The views stated in the above article are that of the author OLIVER IND, not TEDxWarwick nor TED. Oliver Ind tweets @OliverInd1.

Oliver Ind is Director of Publications for TEDxWarwick. He is also Head of Events for the Warwick Think Tank and a Co-Host of 'Warwick Talks' Podcast. He is a second year PAIS student.

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