Yes, we can save the world . . . if we want to

Chris Luebkeman asks whether we are ready to change everything

We can now do just about anything when it comes to the design and construction of the built environment. We know how to make buildings of all sizes that cover their own energy consumption; we know how to make wonderful spaces and places for people to thrive in; we can make materials that essentially last for ever, as well as materials which decompose on demand; we can fly faster than sound and trap molecules in optical "tweezers". Yet, how often do we pause to ask: "Should we do this differently?"

For many, this question is simply too hard. Yet rapid urbanisation demands that we ask it. It is expected that by 2030, 60 per cent of the world's population will be urban dwellers.

This poses a considerable infrastructure problem. What kind of growth could it be? Is it possible to make an urban centre not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-positive? Can new cities be planet-friendly? Our future is very tied in to how we resolve and manage growth of our cities. Their health has to be top of the global political agenda.

The traditional city is a great consumer of energy. City life requires electricity. Urban dwellers use cars. There is no way of tackling the problems created by climate change without looking at the rapid increase in cities.

This is why Arup, the civil engineering company responsible for the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre and Tate Modern, is creating Dongtan, the world's first eco-city, on an island off Shanghai.

Dongtan represents the response of some of the world's best brains to the problem of climate change. It will be a city for hundreds of thousands and as close to carbon-neutral as is possible today. All housing will be within seven minutes' walk of public transport. Most citizens will work within the city, which will produce sufficient electricity and heat for its own use, entirely from renewable sources. There will be no emissions from vehicles. Food will be produced on the island. Buildings (of local materials) will use traditional and new construction technologies.

And yet it is not good enough. We know that it is the best achievable based on contemporary knowledge, but we also know that we have to do better. Dongtan is a holistic, systemic view of a city - something unfortunately rare. It is easier to hide behind departmental boundaries and targets than to deal with uncomfortable issues. But holistic, systemic thinking is now vital.

Someone calculated that if every Chinese citizen drove a car, the world's known oil supply would be consumed in six months. One need only visit any major city to grasp the cruel reality and sheer enormity of this truth. Traffic jams are a ubiquitous urban experience. At some point, the clogging of these arteries, the deep blockages, will reach a critical point. The question is not if, but how soon?

IMF data reveals that as an economy moves from the agrarian stage through industrialisation to full consumption, there is an equal rise in energy consumption. There are three crucial things to note about this. First, that there is a one-to-one relationship between the availability of energy and the viability of an economy. Second, that the nation which has been the greatest consumer of energy per person, the United States, has also used up most of its internal energy sources. Third, that the two most populated nations in the world, China and India, currently low users of energy, are intent on moving up the ladder.

China is on the way to becoming the most polluted country in the world. Simultaneously, it is the most aggressive in setting more eco-friendly design standards. In this ambivalent role, it represents many of us.

Population shifts, increasing scarcity and the wanton consumption of arable land and natural resources (renewable and non-renewable) are pushing us ever closer to global disaster.

This is a crucial and sobering point in history. Despite setbacks and mistakes, progressive national and local governments are taking the initiative. There is still time for corrective action.

Our future is very much ours to decide. It will not ultimately depend on technology or the economy. What we leave to those that come after us will be determined by us, and whether or not we rise to the challenge we now face.

Chris Luebkeman is a director and leader of Arup's global Foresight and Innovation initiative

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