Leading the SustainableFinance.Live's 2023 keynote session, Roxana Slavcheva, global lead for the built environment, World Resources Institute (WRI), dove right in to her session titled the ‘Role of AI in Decarbonising the Built Environment: An Urban Policy Perspective.’
With cities as the key focus, Slavcheva commenced by stating that we need to move beyond the typical slogans and catchphrases of the sustainability movement often heard at events such as today’s. “Cities are engines of economic growth and are where 50% of the population lives, cities produce 70% or more GHG emissions, 90% of residents in cities live in places that exceed safe limits or air pollution.”
We all know and understand the statistics, Slavcheva explains, but we can also look at cities as more independent entities that benefit from agility, and much like startups, they can experiment and “move fast and break things,” to learn, improve, iterate.
Slavcheva states that the building sector accounts for over one third of energy demand, and is the largest contributor to CO2 emissions. How can we move beyond the frequently heard slogans and questions and improve building decarbonisation?
Achieving decarbonisation would reduce cost, create jobs, provide cost effective energy capacity, improve human benefits (comfort, wellbeing) and more. WRI leads the response to this question with a framework. It approaches the issues through the Donut Economics model, featuring the three pillars: People, Nature, and Climate pillars of the donut as the built environment doesn’t exist in isolation. It's part of an urban system, which means that aligning this with the model must focus on championing regenerative and distributive policies.
“The WRI says that cities should really be approached as enhancing nature systems rather than the usual approach of attempting to bring in greenery and forests to cities. We need a systems change, and changes via linear models really don’t work.”
Bringing this to fruition for energy systems decarbonisation, for instance, requires addressing the four ‘Ds’:
In enabling the conditions for systems change, the WRI breaks the ecosystem into two categories, the human and the enablers. For the human breakdown, food, energy and cities are the three key pillars, while enablers, when viewed not as inhibitors but as catalysts for change, the WRI lists finance, governance and economics:
Another key enabler that the WRI focuses on, is that of technology. Specifically, AI.
WRI leverages its advanced data lab to leverage AI technology for a variety of purposes. The urban heat island effect, for instance, is being looked at to understand the air temperatures within and across cities around the globe. A similar initiative called Global Forest Watch is used to study the spread of greenery across specific cities and how, for instance, tree coverage may impact temperatures.
Data sets are only as useful insofar as they can be analysed, translated into useful policy tools and implemented. WRI advises policymakers and actors to take the evidence to create a data centered approach to urban development which tackles some of these challenges - such as the urban heat island effect. “That includes several focus areas of intervention. For instance, in the urban heat island example, we advise a city to look into not just tree cover but designing from multiple angles for a liveable neighborhood and to mitigate the impact of the urban heat island effect but also to create a more enjoyable and healthier space.”
Developing liveable neighbourhoods, redefining business and procurement models, reducing cities energy demands, resilient water systems and infrastructure are other focus areas the WRI also recommends.
“Decarbonising the built environment is a complex challenge, and it requires careful planning collaboration, the consideration of various stakeholders needs and interests, while balancing the multiple layers and dependencies involved. There is no one size fits all endeavour to decarbonise the built environment.
“That’s why the WRI looks at multiple angles, multiple entry points and speaking the language of the stakeholders. We engage with each category of partners and how they view their role in the system. Our role is really to frame and guide on city influence.”
For example, the WRI works with government to assist them advance their contribution to NDCs and the SDGs, increasing the city’s attractiveness in terms of investability and livability, as well as competitiveness.
“We also look into enabling conditions for reducing barriers, the degrees of freedom, classification of place and cities' challenges in different geographies. We work globally, looking at multiple stakeholder priorities.”
In addition to working with policymakers, the WRI also collaborates with affordable construction companies, data providers, real estate and asset managers, developers, investors that are concerned with climate risk for resilience and for their investment, maintenance, build infrastructure and insurance perspective as well.
“Our role is to bring everyone to the party and enable them to work in a concerted effort,” adds Slavcheva.
Responding to an audience member who wanted to know where a region has done this in a way that isn’t too ‘expensive?’ Slavcheva argues that: “It depends what you mean by expensive, but I think it's a definitional point, I like the point one of the panelists previously made that it's more expensive not to do it!
“It's changing the reference point, that really matters here. I don't think it's necessarily the cost, there's always an assumption that there will be short term investment that goes in, but the cost of maintaining the current heavily polluting system is quite large.
"The cost of inaction, in terms of climate change, mitigation and adaptation is quite large. And so if you add up all of those current system maintenance costs in addition to the benefits that you get from a just energy transition, it's not expensive […] We don't have much time. We have targets and commitments to decarbonise the entire economy. The energy sector is a big part of our emissions trajectory here. So, ideally, it will take bringing in actors like all of us that have gathered here, to make the business case and to make the pledge and the commitment to do this as soon as possible.”