Smart cities are key to fight against climate change

  • Written by  Nathan Pierce
  • Published in Opinions
Smart cities are key to fight against climate change Shutterstock
23 Oct
Earlier this month, an international sustainability conference brought together 400 sustainability experts, engineers and political leaders representing 50 ‘Lighthouse’ cities to discuss the threat of climate change

Nathan Pierce is Programme Director of Sharing Cities. To learn more visit

Unlike other sustainability conferences, where discussions rarely ever turn into action, this was a little different. The emphasis here was on the role of residents, businesses, and local authorities in tackling climate change and improving services for the people who live in our cities

It was a conference that was convened almost with an assumption that relying on central governments will not get us anywhere. That instead, we will have to do it ourselves. Cities across Europe are taking concrete steps to reduce their carbon emissions through a variety of innovative solutions that incorporate businesses and civil society to some degree.

Indeed our meeting point for this conference was a city that has led the way in tackling climate change by working with residents, businesses and local authorities. It has reduced carbon emissions by a third since 2007. It was a city that had successfully incentivised businesses within the region to reduce their emissions by ten per cent each year, with those targets often exceeded – a city that now enjoys better air quality, better health for its citizens, greater economic stability and more equality.

This is Sønderborg, a small city in the south of Denmark with a population of just 27,000. As you look out onto the still waters of the harbour, it is hard to believe that you are at the forefront of the global climate change movement.

But surrounded by the sea and prone to regular flooding, Sønderborg has become a global leader in delivering significant urban change by working directly with residents and local politicians. In 2007, Sønderborg pledged to become completely zero-carbon by 2029. As part of Project Zero it will also divest itself from the central energy grid.

In less than ten years, the city has made substantial leaps forward, with the adoption of onshore and offshore wind farms, residential solar PVs, and the use of bio-gas for industry and transport. The result is a 35 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

But Project Zero is also very business-friendly; businesses that sign up to reduction targets often exceed them. This means savings, less exposure to energy volatility, better relationships with local communities and employees.

While many outside of Denmark may not have heard of Sønderborg, cities and municipalities are taking note of its success. The German town of Flensburg, for instance, sits near the Denmark border and is just 45km from Sønderborg. Both towns formed a partnership to organise the climate conference – a powerful demonstration of how collaboration between cities need not be hampered by borders or jurisdictions.

It is precisely this vision and ethos that underpins the work being done by Sharing Cities. Cooperation among cities – from London, Milan and Lisbon, to Bordeaux, Warsaw or Burgas – is mutually beneficial and efficient. At the Sønderborg conference all of the EU ‘Lighthouse projects’ that are exploring Smart City solutions, which includes Sharing Cities, announced they will work as a collective to jointly develop business models in four key areas: electric bikes; smart lighting systems; digital platform for cities; and retro-fitting social housing with smart measures.

With 50 cities and over €250million in funding (and counting), these business models have the potential to make a real impact on the market place.

At last month’s Sharing Cities consortium meeting in London, we emphasised the importance of collaboration in the delivery of innovative solutions to urban challenges. Collaboration of this nature can be difficult, often because it is conflated with ‘centralisation’. Many think of smart cities as ‘big cities’ – highly complex and centralised structures that equally require complex governance. But in reality it is about thinking small to think big; as Sønderborg’s success attests.

Smart cities are fundamentally ‘decentralised’. They are, in effect, a network of solutions to the challenges our cities face – whether that’s transport, housing or infrastructure. We share the solutions that we find at a local level in order to build scalability. This upward scalability in turn can result in savings of more than 70 per cent to the cities and their taxpayers.

Returning to the hustle and bustle of London, it is great to know that cities like Sønderborg have as much to offer us as we have to offer them.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the positions of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) or Geographical.

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