China and U.S. agree smart cities are key to combating climate change

Wed, 2013-08-07 06:10 -- Jesse Berst

electric vehicles reduce carbon emissionsA new post at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests that U.S.-China climate change cooperation is climbing to the next level -- and that smart cities will be the focus. The U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group presented proposals for five new action initiatives during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July 2013.

We've given you a quick summary below. Or you can visit the Carnegie post for their take, or review the full report. -- Jesse Berst

The U.S. and China are already collaborating on extensive joint research to reduce global carbon emissions. What is needed now is an understanding of how those technologies interact with political systems, economic markets and established infrastructure. U.S.-China cooperation must move from the laboratory to the real world.

Cities can be key places to apply existing research. Urban dwellers are responsible for roughly 70% of global emissions. But cities not only produce high emissions – they can also produce much-needed solutions. Implementing cooperative projects between the two countries will result in the widespread mitigation of the missions with significant impacts for the entire world.

Of the five new action initiatives, three were highlighted: smart grid, smart (efficient) buildings and low carbon transportation. Testing them in real-world settings will create a feedback loop to further refine the technology and form the foundation of future sustainable cities.

Smart grids

Both China and the United States have aging, outdated electrical grids. Outages can leave millions in the dark – indeed, blackouts have more than doubled in the United States in the last decade. The inefficiencies of aging grids also cause unnecessary carbon emissions. By contrast, using smart grids could help the U.S. reduce its carbon emissions from electricity by 12% by 2030.

The concentrated nature of cities makes them an ideal environment for piloting smart grids. A research center at the University of California at Los Angeles, in partnership with Peking University and Fudan University, has recently been working on developing sensing and communication technologies for smart-grid and smart-city systems. A joint U.S.-China urban pilot program in newly designated eco-cities could provide meaningful data on and uncover innovative solutions to political, economic and technical barriers that larger-scale smart-technology implementation may face.

Building efficiency

In the United States, retrofitting commercial, residential and industrial buildings for greater energy efficiency would reduce U.S. energy use by 30% and greenhouse gas emissions by 10%. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, the building sector offers more low-cost opportunities to reduce emissions across the world by 2030 than other sectors.

A U.S.-China pilot program could be implemented to study the technologies’ emissions potentials and economic outcomes in cities with varying climate geographies and different population sizes and demographics. Cities in the program could test the new equipment and systems and couple the results with low-carbon building regulations and other policy mechanisms that promote more efficient built infrastructure.

Sustainable transportation

The majority of transportation omissions are from personal or commercial road transportation. Because auto-centric planning dominates many U.S. and Chinese cities, vehicles will likely continue to proliferate. Plug-in electric vehicles have the potential to reduce transport carbon emissions between 57% and 81%.

The CERC-Clean Vehicles Consortium provides the research groundwork for pilot programs of urban electric vehicle networks to test their efficiency and economic viability. The center’s research agenda in this area, carried out at the University of Michigan and Tsinghua University, has focused on understanding vehicle-grid interactions; advancing vehicle equipment, including electrification, batteries and clean combustion; and developing a technology and policy roadmap for the eventual implementation of electric vehicles. It has identified specific urban sites as pilots.

Executing pilot projects in cities, where concentrated energy distribution systems, carbon-intensive mobility patterns, and a dense built environment of commercial and residential buildings combine to produce the majority of global emissions, could reduce the effects of climate change dramatically.


Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to subscribe to SmartCitiesNow, the weekly newsletter highlighting smart city trends, technologies and techniques.