Thursday, November 16, 2023
The demographic pyramid of the planet is reeling. By the end of 2022, Earth’s population had exceeded 8 billion people, doubling the figure from 1975. Despite this remarkable growth, declining birth rates and fluctuating aging indices, particularly in high-income nations, might lead to a reversal of this trend. It is projected that by the end of the century, the Global Village could shrink by 1 billion people.
These shifts in population rates might appear supernatural, but they are based on real data that, according to experts, will have ripple effects on the economy, including reduced productivity, wealth deficits, and uneven income distribution. On the flip side, these changes could pave the way for a transition to net-zero CO2 emissions.
Cities provide a crucial lens through which to observe the impending demographic shift expected in the next century. Meanwhile, city authorities are compelled, within their jurisdictions, to tackle climate change. The planet’s most pressing demand necessitates sustainable urban economies by 2050, with rigorous interim goals for reducing greenhouse gases in 2030 and 2040, despite the ever-changing variables like residential census figures. It is a complex puzzle, requiring a delicate balance.
In response to this challenge, capital cities are diligently working to transform into smart cities, aligning their intelligent strategies with the needs of their residents. They are developing eco-friendly service networks and infrastructures while efficiently managing housing and leisure demands. This transformation positions them as sustainable laboratories, driven by a three-fold, essential responsibility: mitigating 60% of current CO2 emissions, accommodating an estimated 70% of the world’s 10 billion inhabitants by mid-century, and controlling 90% of the global GDP by that time.
This housing pressure will be even more acute in mega-cities, those exceeding 10 million inhabitants, where the human presence is expected to expand by 35% by 2050.
Because of all that, the intersection of demography and recycling is illuminating new urban green pathways. The think tank Joint Research Centre (JRC) injects optimism into its strategic evaluations, emphasizing that demographic and climate challenges “intersect”, uncovering highly lucrative opportunities in renewable energy, infrastructure, recycling, and essential services like water and electricity.
“The widespread emergence of smart cities is a global phenomenon” driven by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). These technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and advanced big data analytics, have enabled cities to swiftly create large-scale green projects and unprecedented urban modernization initiatives.
Urban dwellers have never before been as extensively and effectively connected to goods and services through their smartphones and data flows. Similarly, their political leaders have never been so intricately engaged with the advantages of technology, enabling collaboration with businesses in municipal planning and the development of networks and infrastructures aimed at modernizing their circular urban economy and erasing their carbon footprints.
However, within this framework, how can efficient recycling systems be established that are both environmentally sustainable and capable of accommodating a sizable resident population?
AI and big data are the key tools for reusing materials and harnessing finite natural resources to decrease pollution levels, emphasize JRC. Likewise, digitization serves as the strategic advantage in modernizing business value chains, promoting smart businesses with advanced technology and sustainable credentials, particularly in the multipurpose waste sector dedicated to material regeneration.
This is the directive of the European Commission in its array of environmental policies, using innovation in service of ecological causes, social welfare, and the recycling industry. This approach is justified by a stark reality: the internal market generates 2.2 billion tons of waste annually, requiring extraordinary recycling efforts. So there is an urgent need to establish efficient circular economy models that prevent disruptions in value chains and safeguard biodiversity. Europe must reduce its current waste management’s 3.3% carbon footprint and package the 180 kilos of waste generated by each European annually.
Another pressing issue concerns water management: “Cities will keep expanding, and the planning for their residential and industrial water needs must extend not just 5 or 10 years, but over half a century,” warns Enrique Vivoni, a researcher at Arizona State University. Especially in terms of recycling, adds Dragan Savic, CEO of the KWR Water Research Institute, before pointing out that most cities “still rely on single-use systems.” The task at hand “is significant if we intend to continue using water for daily needs like bathing and for tap water.”
The good news is that 75% of household water can be reused for agricultural or industrial purposes, garden maintenance, and swimming pool purification.
But “we need to build the cities of the future now,” stresses Savic. Jon Glasco, from Bee Smart City, a global network of urban solutions, adds the objective of “displacing our unsustainable linear economic models with circular alternatives.” It’s not merely an option, “but the only viable path,” and, currently, only 9% are embracing these changes, cautions the expert from this circular economy lobby.
One of the reasons is current human consumption, built upon the “false” belief in unlimited resources, as highlighted by McKinsey, who us that “humans consume resources at a rate 1.7 times greater than what the Earth can offers.” Even in Europe, which boasts a relatively high circularity rating, only 40% of waste is recycled, capturing just 5% of its original value. Despite the linear economy demanding 300 tons of waste per capita, it contributes to an environmental impact ranging from 6% to 20% of the global CO2 emissions, depending on whether these emissions are direct or derived from secondary production plants, as noted by Arup and Stopwaste.
McKinsey recommends “stable financing” for this circular transition, which, for Europe, would contribute an additional “€1.8 trillion to its GDP annually from 2030,” according to their partners. Additionally, Emma Berntman from Hermes EOS advises reactivating ESG investments and “restructuring strategies in capital portfolios, focusing on cutting-edge technologies.”
Acer’s Jeni Odley emphasizes that urban action plans should prioritize AI “to achieve optimal energy efficiency and establish transportation networks capable of dynamically aligning demographics with waste management interactively, continuously, and in real-time.”
Aligned with the G-20 Smart Cities Alliance’s assertion that “decarbonization won’t happen without technology” and the EU’s ambitious targets of reusing 65% of its waste by the end of 2025 and 70% by 2030, they emphasize integrating recycling methods into a circular economy, following United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12’s three Rs principle: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
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