Digitalization can, at a much faster rate than ever before, help and enable decarbonization across all sectors, including energy and mobility, and promote circular and shared economies, dematerialization as well as resource and energy efficiency and sufficiency.
This is however not an automatic process. In fact, during the last two decades digitalization has largely rather perpetuated non-sustainable resource use and greenhouse gas-intensive growth patterns and increased inequality.
“Disruptive technologies have not yet been mobilized towards sustainability transformations. We need to radically reverse the current greenhouse gas-intensive growth patters to create pathways toward sustainability. To make this happen, governments need to create different incentive schemes, sustainability researchers need to cooperate with the digital pioneers, and companies need to develop digitally driven and low carbon-oriented business models.” stated Prof. Dirk Messner, Director of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).
The transformation towards sustainability has to take place across sectors and geographic boundaries. Within the global landscape, cities have been incubators for innovation and change. They play a crucial role for sustainability and climate action. By 2050, two thirds of the world’s human population will live in urban areas — and today, 70 percent of global emissions are already related to urban areas.
“The Paris Climate Agreement can only be implemented if we decarbonize the infrastructure of all cities worldwide” stated Dr. Simone Sandholz, Senior Scientist at UNU-EHS.
So how can cities rapidly be decarbonized and become sustainable? Technologies offer a number of highly effective options. For instance, artificial intelligence and big data analysis can support decision makers in better understanding urban transport infrastructure. This can inform decisions on urban mobility, better use opportunities of shared mobility and thus reduce air pollution, benefitting human health and well-being as well as accelerating efforts towards climate protection.
Digital technologies can also play an important role in the urgently needed increase in the use of renewable energy, as they provide access to electricity for remote areas, and allow for the spread of renewable energy use to new sectors. At the same time, they have a huge potential to foster development of urban marginal settlements, following the commitment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ‘leave no one behind’. Smart mobility or mobile microfinancing services can directly benefit urban dwellers, while digital data management systems across sectors can contribute to long-term urban planning and resilience.
A shift towards ‘sustainable, smart cities’ requires that municipalities and urban decision makers have or continue to have sovereignty over the deployment of new technologies. Sustainable cities are characterized by high connectivity and ‘smart’ infrastructure, with the potential to enable high-quality services with a low environmental footprint. Improving the housing situation in informal settlements towards decent housing in a low-resource and low-carbon manner is feasible. Improved urban design, sustainable lifestyles, empowered local actors, and participatory approaches that avoid one-size-fits-all solutions are needed to achieve this transformation towards sustainable cities.
These types of cities would link existing sustainable action with new smart technologies. Combining green infrastructure and grey infrastructure with online monitoring systems has proven to be successful not only for climate protection but also for disaster risk reduction.
Linking urban protected areas to engineered flood defense systems or making use of green roofs and walls for reducing peak temperatures and decelerating water runoff into the sewer system are economically reasonable technologies increasingly applied in urban areas.
Despite all of these benefits, sustainable digitalization does not come without risks. A growing dependency on digital infrastructure, particularly power supply, e.g. by means of decentralizing smart renewable energy grids, potentially places populations at risks and requires robust risk-mitigation and contingency planning from national, regional and local stakeholders.
“The implementation of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires bold climate and sustainability action,” stated Dr. Martin Frick, Senior Director for Policy and Programme Coordination at UN Climate Change. “Digital technologies have a critical role to play in the profound transformation that is required. This transformation has to happen at all levels, regions and sectors to ensure success. Digital technologies can contribute in particular by empowering climate and sustainability actors, from large corporates to the level of individual citizens. They can provide incentives to act, measure the impact of actions, and track collective progress towards the goals.”
Based in Bonn, Germany, UNU-EHS conducts research on risks and adaptation related to environmental hazards and global change. The institute’s research promotes policies and programmes to reduce these risks, while taking into account the interplay between environmental and societal factors. Research areas include climate change adaptation by incorporating insurance-related approaches, environmentally induced migration and social vulnerability, ecosystem-based solutions to adaptation and disaster risk reduction, and models and tools to analyse vulnerability and risks linked to natural hazards, with a focus on urban space and rural-urban interfaces. UNU-EHS also offers the joint Master of Science degree programme “Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security” with the University of Bonn and hosts international PhD projects and courses on global issues of environmental risks and sustainable development.