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In the long-term, will sustainable development options for urban food, water, and energy (FWE) be able to match or outperform existing systems? The SUNEX project from the SUGI FWE Nexus call takes a nexus approach to this question (an integrated approach looking at all three systems together). Their method produced an integrated modelling framework (SUNEX-IMFA) that enables preparation for long-term development scenarios for sustainable food-water-energy systems in SUNEX’s four pilot cities: Berlin, Bristol, Doha and Vienna. The project also offers decision-makers a set of policy guidelines that produce “win-win” outcomes that fight climate change and make urban food, water and energy systems more efficient. Dr Ali Hainoun (SUNEX’s project coordinator) and Professor David Ludlow (the project’s principal investigator), explain how SUNEX’s modelling framework and policy guidelines can assist decision-making for all cities.
SUNEX-IMFA is an integrated modelling framework focused on constructing alternative development pathways and their impacts on supply and demand for food, water and energy and their key nexus-effects. The first pathway is a ‘business as usual’ scenario that describes a continuation of historical trends, including recently enacted FWE policy trends without additional measures on sustainable development. The second pathway is a ‘sustainable development scenario,’ where modelling is done to reflect an active transition towards efficient, sustainable and low-carbon FWE-systems. Both scenarios are developed following consistent assumptions on expected future socio-economic and technological developments of the pilot cities considered. Scenarios are developed to include a participatory process involving key city stakeholders. In this way, modelling both scenarios can inform decision-makers of the advantages and disadvantages associated with low-carbon options when evaluating future development trajectories.
Scenarios are developed to include a participatory process involving key city stakeholders.
In all four of SUNEX’s pilot cities, sustainable development scenarios were shown to decrease energy demand. The long-term projections for yearly energy demand show that by 2050 in all four cities energy demand would be below existing levels. In contrast, in all four cities projections for a ‘business as usual’ scenario there were significant increases in yearly energy demand by 2050. Sustainable development scenarios were also shown to be viable options for achieving ambitious city-level climate action plans. For example, in Vienna, the project produced an optimal energy supply strategy that was in line with the Smart City Wien Framework Strategy (SCWFS). By 2050 the sustainable development pathway would make Vienna’s energy consumption 57% lower than the pathway based on business as usual practises. Sustainable development would also lower Vienna’s per capita energy consumption by 48%, very close to the SCWFS target of 50%. From an environmental perspective, a sustainable development strategy would also produce 60% less greenhouse gas emissions. Similar results were found in Bristol, where the sustainable development scenario was much closer to meeting the Bristol One City plan for sustainable development.
By 2050 the sustainable development pathway would make Vienna’s energy consumption 57% lower than the pathway based on business as usual practises.
Ali is careful to note that modelling results are sensitive to both changes in future prices for imported electricity and how much weight is given to present and future expenditure. Nevertheless, SUNEX’s work shows that sustainable development scenarios can produce positive outcomes for both the climate and the reliable provision of food, water and energy in cities.
Although optimisation models already exist for urban systems, David says many of these do not adequately factor in climate change. He explains that some strategies currently considered optimal for urban systems integration are actually sub-optimal from a climate change perspective. This is why SUNEX explicitly pursued an integrated approach that reflects the realities of climate change mitigation and adaptation requirements.
The strength of SUNEX’s policy guidelines is that instead of focusing on trade-offs between climate change goals and optimisation goals, they offer co-benefit solutions that address multiple issues. These ‘win-win’ scenarios can be achieved with an integrated approach to policy. For example, attaining the policy objective of improving urban health and wellbeing with integrated thinking on transport and energy policy can produce ‘liveable neighbourhoods’ with co-benefit effects. These spaces could have attractive, well-networked walkways and cycle lanes that connect intuitively with public transport hubs. Such spaces would not only improve public health but also produce the co-benefits of reducing energy demand for transportation, increase the amount of space available for urban food production, and deliver on climate change mitigation imperatives. SUNEX’s policy guidelines identify six interlinked policy areas where an integrated approach can produce these co-benefits, offering guidance on the appropriate strategies for each policy area and outlining the type of co-benefits that could be produced as well as the trade-offs that should be avoided.
Separate from SUNEX’s policy guidelines, the project has also produced a policy concept model that can help cities overcome their food security and energy vulnerabilities. The model offers decision-makers clear insights into the food, water and energy considerations necessary for both of these objectives, in terms of food security in the context of climate change mitigation strategies. The model also goes into detail about the importance of supporting urban agriculture, reducing food waste, and transforming land-use planning. Regarding clean energy, the model emphasises the need for policy reform for green building codes, certification programmes, education campaigns and innovative private-public partnerships. It also addresses the need for policy makers to offer guidance on clean energy micro-production, such as household energy generated using solar panels. The policy concept model also provides clear planning strategies for building climate resilience, compact city planning, using nature-based solutions, promoting urban health and wellbeing, designing mobility infrastructure, increasing quality of life, and promoting active transport.
Both Ali and David emphasise the fact that the timing of the project means their findings and recommendations are geared towards the “new normal” world created by the Covid-19 pandemic, where working from home became a reality almost overnight and shopping habits were shifted even further onto online domains. SUNEX’s modelling work and policy advice aim to reflect this post-pandemic reality, promoting development strategies for mobility systems that incorporate both working from home practises as well as infrastructure for active transport (cycling and walking), producing a range of co-benefits, such as improved urban health, reductions in noise and air pollution, and climate change benefits.
Good policy guidance alone will not make ‘win-win’ sustainable development scenarios a reality. This requires a real change in governance practises.
However, good policy guidance alone will not make ‘win-win’ sustainable development scenarios a reality. This requires a real change in governance practises. Ali and David say SUNEX highlighted three key areas for improvement. First, governance must become more integrated both horizontally (between city regions and municipalities) and vertically (linking higher and lower levels of government holistically). Secondly, governance must also become more open, embracing bottom-up approaches that include citizen participation, NGOs and civil society actors. Lastly, interoperable systems need to be developed to support common assessment methodologies, allowing intelligent strategies to flow freely across governance and national boundaries. David finishes by saying, “our results are a wake-up call to both researchers and urban planners to adjust to this new reality.”