Peter Head

10 June 2011 –Australia is leading the world in the accelerating use of carbon and in carbon emissions and is currently about 44 or 45 per cent above the 1990 level, while Europe is moving in the opposite direction. This was a key message from Peter Head in his keynote address at Landcom’s DiverseCity conference held in Sydney last week. It was a message that caused a lot of cringing amongst the audience.

Director of Arup in the UK, and advisor to the World Future Council, Peter Head gave an inspiring address on how the world will transition to a low carbon world.

He made several references to Australia’s reluctance to confront climate change and emphasised the point by showing a graph of our per capita CO2 emissions trend compared to the rest of the world. Whereas most of the developed world is following a downward curve for emissions Australia’s, together with the US, is on an upward trajectory.

China, for example, is aiming for energy consumption per person half that of the current level in the European Union at the same level of GDP by 2050. The UK is targeting a 50 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2025 based on 1990 levels and other European countries have similar targets.

It was a stark reminder of how dismal the standard of the political debate regarding climate change has become in Australia and of the fact that we are fast being left behind by the rest of the world.

Head talked about the global opportunities created by resource shortages and climate change. His key message: “The current development paradigm in the world’s cities, based on ever increasing consumption of resources, is absolutely unsustainable. We have to find a new one.”

“One million years of stored carbon is going back into the atmosphere each year. Well clearly we can’t continue to do that without some very serious consequences.”

At the same time the amount of land available per person has shrunk dramatically over the past 100 years. In 1900 it was 8 hectares, in 2011 it was 2 hectares and by 2050 it will be just 1.44 hectares, Head said.

“We are living as if this isn’t happening. We are in complete denial, particularly in Australia to be honest, as you are rather cut off from this issue because you have such a big land mass and a large amount of resources. But in reality this is one of the big issues with a globalised world and resource flows and it is beginning to impact very seriously on the ability, particularly of developing countries, to develop in the way we have in the past.

“The current lifestyle pattern in Australia means you use around 6.5 hectares per person of land, which is roughly three planets worth of resources if you were to divvy it up around the world.”

In the ecological age that we are now in the human footprint must be reduced. Head’s answer? Using a Human Development Index, Head says we need to reduce carbon emissions by an average 50 per cent by 2050 on 1990 levels, reduce our ecological footprint to 1.5 hectares per person and  increase our resource efficiency by a factor of four or five.

“This means using four or five less stuff to have the same quality of life. And actually we would improve the quality of life because if we’re not spending all that money on things we don’t really need we could spend more on health and education.

“In the UK for example, we’ve got ourselves in the crazy situation where we are a very wealthy country but we can’t afford to spend money on health and education. Now what sort of nonsense is that because that’s the priority for most of us for our families and our children, ” said Head.

Reducing carbon emissions is an ethical issue because climate change will have very serious consequences in developing countries where very poor people live in river valleys and in flood-prone areas.

The fundamental issue is about economics and finance. China for example is using the developed world’s model of driving GDP growth. This, says Head, just destroys the ecosystem.

Peter Head

A new economic model based on services
“What we need is a new model of driving economic activity which benefits quality of life and allows the ecosystem to recover. That fundamentally, from all the analysis I’ve done, means moving from a business model where you own stuff and sell it, to one where you sell services. So instead of selling buildings you move to office and housing services and instead of selling transport you sell mobility services. Instead of selling energy electrons you sell energy services.”

This creates a sense of shared value, says Head, and that will lead to the transition to a low carbon world.

The key was to take land ownership out of the equation and to retrofit existing communities at the same time as developing new ones. To this end Arup has created a Total Community Retrofit Model, which is being developed for use in the UK. A vital aspect of the model is that it will be financed by pension funds.

Everywhere I go now land owners are saying they can make more money out of managing sustainable infrastructure management than in the risks of development. So there is a big shift going on.”

To fund sustainable developments of the future, superannuation funds would need to change their investment model so that they prioritise investments that have social benefits as well as financial returns.

Arup’s model for social community retrofit is effectively a private public partnership to do a land assembly and transformation which will address the fundamental issues of sustainable transport, of resource efficient buildings and retrofitting of community owned infrastructure.

“We are engaging pension funds in the business model of enabling private capital to be drawn into this process of community retrofit with returns to investors coming from the saving in resources that have occurred in neighbourhoods that have a much higher quality of life.”

According to Head the cost to make the transition from the industrial to ecological model in the UK is estimated to be around 220 to 450 billion pounds by 2050, around 20,000 to 30,000 pounds per household.

“And the good news about that is that if you can cash in the business model there’s enough money in UK pension funds to help fund it. It doesn’t have to come from the public sector. Indeed in the UK it couldn’t possibly come from the public sector as there’s no money in the public sector.”

Head uses a framework called biomimicry to model the transition, which is the practice of developing sustainable human technologies inspired by nature, key features being diversity and co-operation and using waste as a resource. The historical use of the land is incorporated into development models.

Using these principles removes much of the community objection to development because people no longer fear a loss of memory and cultural history.

Engaging community leadership is also vital for successful sustainable development. An example of this was the involvement of 45 community leaders in developments across London, with the result that London is being fundamentally changed.

To ensure future resource efficiency food must become a much higher priority, with food production brought back into the city. Land use density must increase as must the way we use coal.

Emissions and renewables
One of the biggest issues is the level of carbon emissions coming out of coal fired power stations.

“These emissions are the most difficult to tackle and I personally think we have to develop technology to capture these emissions rather than to stop using coal. I believe there is a middle way between the Greens and Browns by using technologies to mitigate the use of coal because China and India are not going to stop using coal, which is probably good news for the economy of Australia,” said Head.

The waste heat and carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations could be used productively to grow food in intensive ways around power stations.

Opportunities for renewable energy in Australia were enormous, said Head. In South Australia alone there was vast potential for geo-thermal, solar, biomass and wind technologies.

The UK was aiming to stop its growth in emissions from 2013 and then to dramatically reduce them by 2050. From Arup’s calculations half of the reduction in emissions would have to come from the supply side in the grid, 20 per cent from improving building efficiency and 25 per cent from behavioural change. Only 5 per cent would come from new buildings. Retrofitting was the most powerful factor.

Efficiencies in the grid would come from dramatic change to the way energy was generated. In Europe there were plans to create a smart super grid that would draw renewable energy from all over the EU, particularly from North Africa.

The power of renewable technologies to transform economies could be seen in Arup’s calculations for Egypt. Head estimated that if only 5 per cent of Egypt’s desert fringe was used for solar power generation it could export energy to Europe and treble its GDP and transform its economy.

Development density would also need to change. An optimum development density for sustainable cities is around 5000 to 7500 people per square kilometer, said Head. Efficient public transport and less reliance on cars was fundamental, with around 1 per cent of a city’s GDP needing to be spent on developing public transport.

Cars are a waste of CBD space
“Having cars sitting in the centre of the city is an economic drag on the city. Changing land use in city centres by removing cars and closing roads, by pedestrianisation and by putting in good public transport is now a massive switch that is happening all over the world.”

There will also be a transition from oil-based to electric vehicles. China is planning to go to all electric transport by 2050. The US is going to have two million electric vehicles on the road by 2030.

Diminishing food production rates would force food production back into cities, with human waste used as fertiliser.

Peter Head wrapped up his presentation with some examples of ecological age trends:

  • In Seoul a major freeway into the CBD has been ripped up and the underlying river reclaimed. This has regenerated the city centre with workers now able to walk and cycle to work along the river and new businesses popping up in the car-free pedestrian plazas
  • In Holland ground source heat pumps supply energy to households and greenhouses for urban food production
  • In New York a major food production company, Gotham Green, is growing food on city rooftops to supply food to city dwellers
  • In Stockholm in a community of 2000 people an aerobic digester is converting human waste into nutrients for food production and gas for transport and cooking
  • In China food production is being lifted through increased urbanisation by supplying waste water and waste nutrients from cities to farmers. This is overcoming water shortage in areas affected by drought.
  • In the US old shopping malls are being converted to high density mixed use developments.

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