Monday, December 05, 2016

Wanted: a serious business model for eco-retrofitting homes

[NOTE: A version of this article appeared on The Fifth Estate on 29 November.]

A new approach is needed to retrofit the UK’s housing stock to allow it to contribute to a cost-effective decarbonisation strategy, according to a report published by the Energy Technologies Institute.

But the report does not make it really clear what this approach might be.

Although deep retrofits of houses for energy efficiency are technically feasible, as detailed in my book the Earthscan Expert Guide to Sustainable Home Refurbishment, at present doing it to the proper standard might cost around the same as rebuilding the entire UK housing stock.

New homes built to modern UK Building Regulations standards will cost approximately half as much to heat as a Victorian home, according to the British NHBC Foundation. These new or refurbished homes mean reduced bills for heating, hot water and electricity bills, due to better standards of insulation, draught-proofing and improved airtightness, double glazing and efficient controls (programmer, room thermostats and thermostatic radiator valves).

Graphic: The difference in heating costs between a new and Victorian home.
The difference in heating costs between a new and Victorian home. Source: NHBC

Housing Retrofits – A New Start, written by the ETI’s chief engineer Andrew Haslett, looks at the role of housing retrofitting when seeking to tackle the 20 per cent of emissions that comes from heating the UK’s 28 million homes.

Its conclusions come from a two-stage process. The ETI first identified two particular retrofitting approaches that were the most cost-effective in terms of getting the most from time and materials by industrialising the planning and execution of projects. They followed this up by testing them out on five typical UK dwellings (terrace, semi-detached, detached) built from pre-1919 to post-1980, to work out what might be deliverable in the real world. Here are the results:

Retrofits were successfully completed on four of the houses, with gas usage reduced by 30-50 per cent. But the costs ranged from £32,000 to £77,000. The experience led the team to conclude that proper investment in supply chain and training might reduce this by about half to £17,000 to £31,000.


Building retrofit infographic

The incentive gap

That’s still a lot. So how do we persuade someone to spend the money? The report highlights that most consumers are not motivated to spend money on efficiency measures because efficiency savings are a very weak driver. That is the “incentive gap”.

Instead, the report recommends that improved comfort, health and amenity should be the main incentive to fill this gap, with saving money on bills as a secondary benefit.

Meanwhile, at the back end, finding savings in the supply chain by scaling up manufacture and supply, and rewards to investors or installers, and/or legally binding targets for carbon savings (carrots and sticks), would seriously help, both in the social and private sectors.

The ETI has made a video about the project:



But the route to market is still fuzzy.

The need for investment

UK Government spending on grants for home energy efficiency is currently languishing at a 20-year low.

This year has seen a massive fall in the number of households helped by government to become more efficient, with the annual number of major energy efficiency measures installed in homes declining by 80 per cent from 1.74 million to 340,000 between the height of delivery in 2012 and 2015, according to the Association for the Conservation of Energy.

The government seems to lack any sense of the value of energy efficiency compared to investing in large scale energy projects. The ETI reckons that with carbon prices at such a modest level one way to improve housing efficiency lies in more effort to tackle the approximately four million hard to treat cavity walls across the UK. But governments have been trying for years to incentivise this and not even all the “easy wins” have been fixed.

Wanted: a serious model

Although the ETI wants to make eco-retrofits “an integral part of improving the amenity and value of the dwellings”, rather than seeing them as a series of independent measures, it does not present a financial model for doing this.

The only hope it offers is a vague one for “a new kind of service provider (integrator)” to replace existing energy providers, on a franchised basis (local teams), “that aims for a much higher level of service provision, starting with existing energy supplies”.

Such companies would have “a plan for the decarbonisation of supply of each dwelling” but “only if a market environment can be created over the next five years”.

Given the current preoccupations of the UK Government – Brexit – and the lack of any mention of climate change or social care in the government’s budgetary spending plans announced last week, that’s a big ask.

It’s not as if the ETI is asking for a lot of cash compared to the scale of the task. It says: “£10 billion of private and public funds over the next 10 years would provide a platform that would enable investment of roughly £100bn out to 2050″.

Financial Disclosure

The incentive gap is to be addressed by yet another report, soon to be released, this time from the UK Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

It will contain their first set of recommendations about how to help close the gap between the climate/sustainability world and traditional finance thinking.

It will say that all infrastructure projects – not just housing retrofits – have a climate-related element to them, be that energy efficiency (mitigation), resilience against adverse weather events (adaptation) or others.

Therefore policy to encourage the reporting of more information on these topics will help to bring more visibility to the benefits.

And standardising how this information is reported would ensure that it can be used for investor analysis, enabling investors to set targets, and the creation of more products that are attractive to investors.

Well that’s what the Investor Confidence Project is doing. I wonder if the FSB knows about it.

The ETI is conducting important research. What they have done is expose the difficulty of the task but they have only begun to chart a path to accomplishing it.

David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, November 28, 2016

COP22 put built environment at the forefront of climate change action

Note: This post was originally published on The Fifth Estate on 23 November 2016. 

Cities and local governments were especially evident at the Low-Emissions Solutions Conference held during last week’s COP22 global climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, where a Handbook on creating dynamic local markets for Energy Efficient Buildings was launched.

The handbook uses a business-led approach piloted in 10 cities over the last four years to develop and implement action plans on energy efficiency in buildings.

Multi-stakeholder relationships in the building value chain and how they need to come together to promote energy efficiency in buildings.
Multi-stakeholder relationships in the building value chain and how they need to come together to promote energy efficiency in buildings. Source: WBCSD (2015), adapted from Energy Efficiency in Buildings, Business Realities and Opportunities, Facts and Trends.

The handbook goes through the steps involved and how to bring together the many different groups that comprise the buildings sector.

A key example from the handbook is taken from Poland, a country not normally noted for its action on climate change. It describes how a multi-stakeholder partnership set up in 2014 has, by November 2016, already set up a residential buildings energy efficiency financing facility of €200 million (AU$287m), produced a benchmarking report on operation costs in commercial buildings, and created a platform for public-private dialogue and action.

It is part of an initiative called EEB Amplify, launched on COP22’s Buildings and Cities Day with the aim of scaling up the Energy Efficiency in Buildings program from 10 cities to 50 by 2020. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability is currently working with 1500 cities across the world.

EEB Amplify is a partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and Climate-KIC in Europe, the US Green Building Council and US Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the Indian Green Building Council. Its expansion will begin in 2017 and aims to include 50 cities by 2020.

Why different stakeholders should get involved in an energy efficiency market engagement, in what capacity, and what they stand to gain.
Why different stakeholders should get involved in an energy efficiency market engagement, in what capacity, and what they stand to gain. Source: Extract from Energy Efficiency Market Report 2015, IEA adapted from IEA (2014), Capturing the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency, OECD/IEA, Paris.

It’s time to get down to business

COP22 was all about implementation. There was a shared feeling that the Paris Agreement and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals have created an irreversible and irresistible pathway to a low-carbon world and now, despite what has happened in America, the task is just to get on with it.

On display at the conference were materials, construction innovation, technologies for energy efficiency, adaptation and resilience, and sustainable mobility across electric and fuel cell vehicles.

No new fossil fuel infrastructure

NGO and government leaders spoke at a press conference about how subnational governments and major cities around the world – including in the US and Canada – are adopting No New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure policies and pledges.

Cities across the Western US who have signed up to the No New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure policy include Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, and uptake is accelerating.

100 per cent renewable energy

Many cities and governments signalled an intention to move cities and regions away from all fossil fuel export infrastructure and towards 100 per cent renewable energy. Many already are.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the Obama Administration’s plan for deep decarbonisation, even though the Trump administration could well undo it.

While acknowledging the uncertainty Trump’s win creates, he predicted that markets would continue to drive the transition to clean energy sources for economic reasons, and that the question was whether it would happen sufficiently fast to avoid catastrophic climate damage.

“The US plan for deep decarbonisation Secretary Kerry unveiled today is a welcome recognition of the need for urgent action, however, it does not go nearly far enough,” observed Daphne Wysham, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for Sustainable Economy.

So city representatives joined 47 governments forming the Climate Vulnerable Forum, business and civil society including from Morocco, Ethiopia and Costa Rica, the City of Oslo, the Australian Capital Territory Government, Sumba Islands and corporations like Mars and IKEA to talk about the movement towards 100 per cent renewable energy cities.

COP22 President Salaheddine Mezouar said that “renewable energies do not only mitigate our impact on climate change but open the way to new models of sustainable development with new investments, new industries and new jobs”.

Sustainable cities and built environments

The COP22 Low-Emissions Solutions Conference established four work streams:

  1. National and regional low-carbon strategies: mid-century strategies, deep decarbonisation pathways, and implementation at national, regional and local scales; and solutions and innovations spotlight
  2. Information and communications technologies: the contribution of ICT to climate action in other sectors; and innovative approaches to raising commitments towards climate action
  3. Sustainable cities and built environments: local climate action – strategies and implementation; and smart low-carbon and sustainable cities
  4. Low-carbon transport: introduction to mobility challenges and innovation in the transport sector; and electric and hydrogen mobility.
The built environment is at the heart of all of of these work streams.

Following the conference, Gino Van Begin, secretary general of ICLEI, called upon all stakeholders – business, the research community and all levels of government – to get together with local governments to “implement and take up new technologies that facilitate low emission, resilient development” and to “allow innovation to happen and to be effectively applied”.

Only by working together will they, and by definition, the world, “build a strong architecture needed to support implementation of the Paris Agreement”, he said.

Peter Bakker, president and CEO of the WBCSD echoed this, saying the conference showed “how business, government, academia, cities and other experts are already delivering the solutions that will define future competitiveness in the low-carbon economy”.

Cities100

Cities100 was another highlight of the cities day at COP22. It showcased leading solutions to urban climate challenges in 10 sectors, ranging from solid waste management to transportation, and, for the first time, solutions that address the nexus of climate change and social equity. Amongst the examples in Cities100 were:

  • Guang­zhou, China: planning for an increasing population and rising demand for energy using a multi-sector, low carbon plan for green growth targeting infrastructure and buildings
  • Kampala, Uganda: instituting energy efficiency and sustainability in all its operations to make itself an example for other African cities.
  • Taoyuan, Taiwan: which has a development plan targeting lifestyle changes and the creation of a renewable energy industry.
  • New York City, US: its Hous­ing Au­thor­ity has a building retrofit strategy to reduce CO2 emissions, heating costs and make sure that residents in affordable housing have resilient homes.
  • Auckland, New Zealand: has set up a revolving fund to enable the city to invest money generated from municipal energy-saving projects into further energy-saving improvements.
C40 chair and Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes gave a keynote address at the Sustainable Innovation Forum, which highlighted the importance of mayors and cities in tackling climate change, saying that cities are taking bold actions, but much more needs to be done, including a “coordinated collaboration between all levels of society”.

He talked about how carbon intensive and traditional businesses needed to be reinvented because they “will not have a place in a world facing climate change”, calling this “a great economic opportunity”.

“In the next 15 years, the world is expected to invest around USD $90 trillion in infrastructure. Much of that will happen in cities … Municipal governments cannot leverage those resources alone,” he said.

Climate finance

According to C40’s research, urban policy decisions made in the next four years alone could lock-in almost a third of the remaining global safe carbon budget. This is why C40 supports its member cities in developing targets and climate action plans that are aligned with a 1.5 degree pathway.

C40’s Climate Finance Facility, now in its pilot phase, will support cities in low and middle-income countries in preparing climate change projects to attract investments.


C40’s demands for municipal infrastructure finance.
C40’s demands for municipal infrastructure finance.
At the end of November, at the C40 bi-annual Summit in Mexico City, C40 will adopt a new four year business plan with the ambition of the Paris Agreement at its centre.

No to Trump

The 200 countries attending the COP22 conference were united in the face of Donald Trump’s campaign threat to quit the Paris accord on climate change.

“No one country, no one man, no one person can control the outcome of the destiny that we all see as part of the writing on the wall that climate change is real, we need to act and we are going to do everything we can so I definitely think that the speeches over the past several days had that impact and effect on us as a civil society and over other countries as well,” concluded Tina Johnson, policy director at the US Climate Network.

The Marrakech Proclamation, issued at the conclusion of the conference, serves as a message of solidarity against Trump’s threat. The Proclamation contains a resolution to hammer out a rulebook by 2018, and this is its concluding sentence:

“As we now turn towards implementation and action, we reiterate our resolve to inspire solidarity, hope and opportunity for current and future generations.”

David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, November 21, 2016

How changing building shape and form can slash energy use

[Note: This post was originally published on The Fifth Estate website on 15 November 2016]

New guidance has just been issued to help architects, developers and designers understand more about how the shape and form of a building affects heat loss, so they can reduce the energy consumption of new buildings at little or no extra cost.

This guidance is contained in a new report published by the research arm of the British National House-Building Council, called The challenge of shape and form. The mission of the NHBC is to raise the construction standards of new homes and provide guaranteed protection for homebuyers.

Much of the focus on improving the energy efficiency of buildings has to date been in connection with building fabric, insulation and new technology, but their shape and form can be just as important. By paying attention to this, developers can add value to homes and gain a competitive edge.

Mathematical models are used to predict the energy consumption of buildings. These models correctly reflect the importance of the form factor. The form factor is a measure of the compactness of a building in the form of a ratio of the external area of the building to the floor area. In short:

Heat Loss Form Factor = Heat Loss Area / Treated Floor Area

This ratio can be anything between 0.5 and five. A lower number indicates a more compact, efficient building.


The Form Factor for different building styles and sizes
The Form Factor for different building styles and sizes. 
Passivhaus buildings aim to achieve three or less. Once the form factor is over three, achieving the Passivhaus Standard efficiently becomes more challenging.

The early design choices, such as how many storeys a building has, what shape the plan takes, the form and massing, all impact directly on the building energy efficiency.

A building can have a fairly simple massing, but if it has a lot of recesses or protrusions in the thermal envelope, the surface areas soon add up. Less (thermal envelope) surface area means less surface area for heat to escape through. This is shown in the following diagrams.


How changing a building's shape alters its surface area.
How changing a building's shape alters its surface area.
How changing a building's shape alters its surface area.



Form factor and insulation

The form factor has an effect on the amount of insulation needed to achieve the same U-value (measure of heat loss: – the 2013 UK building regulations have limiting U-values of 0.2 W/(m2.K) for a roof and 0.3 W/(m2.K) for walls). If a large compact block of flats had a form factor of 1.0, an average U-value of only 0.28 W/(m2.K) would be required.

The following figures illustrate this:



Types of home and their form factors.
Percentage additional heating for different form factors  for buildings


Heat loss area and U-values have a linear relationship. If the heat loss area of one option is twice that of another option, the insulation will need to be twice as thick!

The problem in Britain

In the UK, the energy and carbon requirements of building regulations do not explicitly give credit for housing designs with lower heat loss areas or more efficient shapes that will reduce heating costs for the building occupants.

The UK’s national calculation methodology, the Standard Assessment Procedure, does give appropriate weight to the form factor in calculating heat loss. But when the basic results from SAP model are fed into the buildings regulations compliance methodology, which follows, the benefits of form factor do not register.

The current Building Regulations in the UK are therefore unable to provide an incentive for industry to design and build homes that have a more efficient type and shape.

The NHBC says designers who focus solely on building regulations compliance may not even realise that they can reduce the energy consumption of homes by changing the form factor.

Doing so can be a low-cost or no-cost measure. The NHBC is calling on the government to consider ways of encouraging designers and developers to take advantage of this effect.

The effect of form and shape

Even though the form may be compact, the building can still be architecturally interesting and provide better comfort conditions for occupants. It need not have to lead to bland or monotonous housing designs.

The guide discusses how the most inefficient design features can often be avoided or replaced by alternatives that are still architecturally interesting. Many designs can provide better comfort conditions for the residents as well.

The NHBC hopes that form factor will gain a “currency” of its own, and will be included among the key parameters that are tracked and discussed as a housing development design evolves.

This is already the case in countries where alternative design approaches are popular; the Passivhaus standard, for example, lists efficient building shape as one of the five key design considerations when planning a new energy-efficient building.


David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, November 14, 2016

UNEP backs Passivhaus to help meet climate targets

[This post originally appeared on The Fifth Estate website on 9 November.]

As the latest round of global climate talks begins, the UN Environment Programme is calling on nations to ramp up their action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and is explicitly backing the use of the Passivhaus Standard to reduce emissions from buildings.



Thermal image showing how a Passivhaus refurbishment/makeover of a terraced home means it loses no heat compared to its neighbours.
Thermal image showing how a Passivhaus refurbishment/makeover of a terraced home (the blue one) means it radiates (loses) no heat compared to its neighbours (red and yellow - meaning they are radiating heat. The more red, the more heat is being lost).
Delegates in Marrakesh for yet another climate conference, the 2016 UN Conference of the Parties (COP22), have been studying a report by UNEP on what the world needs to do to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement and halt dangerous global warming.

COP22 is about following up the just-ratified Paris Agreement. The agreement marks a turning point in the history of the world, establishing both the commitment and the framework for dealing with climate change. COP22 is about fleshing out the detail, and there is a great deal of detail to be fleshed out.

The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions from COP21 form the basis of the Paris Agreement; they are the pledges that each country laid out at year’s negotiations, showing their contribution to tackling climate. But these presently fall well short of achieving COP21’s “well below 2°C” temperature goal.

The Emissions Gap Report

Just in advance of the conference the UNEP issued its “Emissions Gap Report“, which notes the “troubling paradox at the heart of climate policy”.
Erik Solheim
Erik Solheim
In the words of Erik Solheim, the head of the program, the paradox is that “on the one hand nobody can doubt the historic success of the Paris Agreement, but on the other hand everybody willing to look can already see the impact of our changing climate”.

(Everybody, that is, apart from the Republicans in the US who elected Donald Trump and his cronies. But that is another story.)

This report estimates that we are actually on track for global warming of up to 3.4°C – way over the target. The current commitments made by nations “will reduce emissions by no more than a third of the levels required by 2030 to avert disaster”, he says.

“So, we must take urgent action. If we don’t, we will mourn the loss of biodiversity and natural resources. We will regret the economic fallout. But most of all we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy.”

Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow. UNEP is calling for accelerated efforts now, prior to 2020, and for nations to increase their ambitions in their INDCs.

“Pathways for staying well below 2°C and 1.5°C require deep emission reductions after, and preferably also before 2020, and lower levels of emissions in 2030 than earlier assessed 2°C pathways,” the report says.

The report does identify where solutions are available that can deliver low-cost emission reductions at scale, including the acceleration of energy efficiency.

Much has been said, including by myself, about the effect on emissions by actors who are not nations, such as cities, regions and companies. It’s possible, the report notes, that these could reduce emissions in 2020 and 2030 by a few additional gigatonnes, but it is difficult to assess the overlap with INDCs because these are not usually detailed enough and non-state actions can overlap or mutually reinforce each other.

The importance of energy efficiency

The report emphasises that ambitious action on energy efficiency is urgent. Well-documented opportunities exist to strengthen national policies on energy efficiency.

Studies based on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that for a cost range of between US$20 and $100 per tonne of carbon dioxide, 5.9 gigatonnes of emissions could be saved from buildings, 4.1 for industry and 2.1 for transport by 2030. These estimates are conservative and the real potential in each sector is likely to be bigger.

A more recent analysis by the International Energy Agency indicates that the cumulative direct and indirect emissions estimates to 2035 are 30 gigatonnes for buildings, 22 for industry and 12 for transport.

The two studies are not comparable due to differences in approaches, but together illustrate the significant potential in the three sectors.

Improving energy efficiency also offers many other benefits like reduced air pollution and local employment.

It is an integral part of Sustainable Development Goal 7, which aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

The energy efficiency target is to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030, from 1.3 per cent per year to 2.6 per cent. Achieving this goal will be important for achieving many of the other goals:

  • Building energy efficiency will be increased by ratcheting up the ambition of energy codes, and increasing monitoring and enforcement of building regulations with the use of energy performance certification and with encouragement to create highly efficient buildings.
  • Industrial energy efficiency will be helped the more that companies introduce energy management by adopting ISO 50001 an energy performance monitoring. Energy performance standards need to be enforced for all industrial equipment.
  • Transport energy efficiency is improved by the adoption of vehicle fuel economy standards and electric mobility for passenger transport. For freight movements sustainable logistics can be deployed.
There is a huge role for energy service companies to offer these services.

All of these efficiency savings can be encouraged by planning policy. For example:

  • Successful zoning can reduce the need to travel, and neighbourhood layouts can reduce the need for heating or cooling.
  • Spatial planning can help to improve transit options, increase and co-locate employment and residential densities, and increase the amount of green spaces.
  • Heating, cooling and electrical energy services can also be more efficiently delivered at a neighbourhood scale than at a building scale, with distributed renewable or low-carbon energy supplied by local energy service companies.

The Passivhaus standard

The report explicitly advocates the adoption of the Passivhaus standard. Passivhaus, originating in Germany, is primarily a tough quality assurance standard, which demands great attention to detail during the design and construction process to achieve certification.

Key to it is a target that annual final energy use for heating and cooling should not exceed 15 kilowatt hours a square metre a year.

The report says that the global floor area covered by Passivhaus buildings has grown from 10 million sq m in 2010 to 46 million sq m in 2016, with most activity occurring in Europe.

And importantly, it says the price for new Passivhaus buildings in several countries is comparable to standard construction costs.

Initially developed for mid and northern European climates, Passivhaus has been proven to work extremely well in hot climates too. High levels of airtightness and insulation work equally well in protecting buildings from overheating provided there is adequate solar shading.

Controlled mechanical ventilation allows options to pre-cool or pre-heat the supply air and also to humidify or dehumidify the ambient air depending on the relative humidity. In combination these strategies are capable of significantly buffering the daytime temperature swing.

Conventional cross ventilation through open windows and night purge ventilation strategies may also be used as part of the Passivhaus cooling concept when appropriate, such as during the cooler evening of a hot day.

In order to achieve the Passivehaus standard in hot countries, the outer wall must have a U-value between 0.20-0.45 W/m2K.

Depending on the heat-insulating properties of the loadbearing outer walls and on the thermal conductivity of the insulation material used, it may be necessary to install an external thermal insulation system of up to 30cm thickness.

Modern external thermal insulation composite systems based on mineral raw materials combine the best insulating properties with ease of handling. Compared to conventional insulation systems, the additional expense pays off after only a few years.

In climatic regions where the daytime temperature does not drop low enough to purge the accumulated heat gains from the building at night there will be a residual cooling load.

In such cases the Passivhaus standard permits 15 kWh/m2.yr of cooling energy to be used. A small cooling load has proven to be sufficient in almost all cases because the Passivhaus concept is highly effective in reducing unwanted heat gains.

The blower door test is used to detect leaks in the building envelope. The smaller the measured value, the higher the airtightness. Passive houses in hot countries require a value =< 1.0. This means that during the measurement at most 100 per cent of the indoor air volume is allowed to escape through leaky spots within one hour. Experience has shown that values between 0.3 and 0.4 are attainable.

Passivhaus principles can also be applied to refurbishment of existing buildings and achieve impressive results. In the UK there are many examples of ultra-low energy, low carbon retrofits.

At the same time, the Passivhaus Institut has launched a Passivhaus standard for refurbishment projects, known as “EnerPHit”, covering a range of property types, including tower blocks, terraced houses and community centres.

Given that costs are around the same as for conventional buildings but energy costs of using the building are drastically reduced, why are they not more widely adopted?

The main reasons are the lack of ambition in building codes, the lack of awareness, trained construction workers and appropriate monitoring. For the aims of the Paris Agreement to be realised this is just one opportunity that needs to be grasped.

Since the US election, the need to grasp these opportunities has become even more urgent.

David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, November 07, 2016

The pioneering cities of the 'closed-loop' economy

Several cities have joined forces to chart their path to a future where they will create no waste and everything will be reused or recycled endlessly. Believe it or not, there is money in this, and it has a name: the closed loop economy.

Mapping the route to the circular city
Mapping the route to the circular city

The closed loop economy and cities

By 2050, 75 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities and their rapid growth is putting enormous pressure on resources, carrying capacities, and quality of life.

Cities already produce half of global waste and 60-80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Land and buildings are also under-utilised in cities. For example, in the UK alone there are 700,000 empty homes – 22,000 in London alone.

Circularity in resource flows is a way of reducing the consumption of resources, such as energy, water, buildings and land in cities. Cities have a great catalytic power to develop new economic models that make the most of what they have.

City leaders are increasingly being challenged to rethink the way our current urban systems operate, to learn from previous mistakes and implement these lessons in building future systems. Doing so by paying attention to resource flows will help to build long-term prosperity, resource self-sufficiency, economic viability and human wellbeing.

There are other benefits too: encouraging cooperative behaviour, localisation, economic activity and jobs resulting from recycling and remanufacturing, systems integration, flexibility and intelligence.

These are the exciting, revolutionary ideas under-pinning the idea of the Circular City.

Just as 20th century cities developed sewage systems to prevent human waste from flowing down the streets, 21st century cities are developing systems that make use of this valuable resource – and every other kind of waste – instead of throwing it away and causing pollution.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Dame Ellen MacArthur, who first made her name as the world’s greatest solo long-distance yachtswoman, has reinvented herself as a pioneer of the closed-loop economy and founded a foundation in her name to spread best practice and new ideas.

Dame Ellen MacArthur (left) with Dr Siva Kumari at the signing of an educational partnership with the International Baccalaureate (see below).
Dame Ellen MacArthur (left) with Dr Siva Kumari at the signing of an educational partnership with the International Baccalaureate (see below).

In October, her foundation hosted the launch event of its Circular Cities Network. This global network consists of city leaders who are pioneering the application of circular economy approaches.

Nine cities are the founder members: Austin, Boulder, Copenhagen, London, Ljubljana, New York City, Peterborough, Phoenix and Rio de Janeiro.

So far the network is providing an online knowledge exchange platform to support decision-makers from city authorities to take action. They will meet quarterly via video conference and receive a free quarterly webinar series on circular cities innovation produced in collaboration with University College London, which in September launched a Circular Cities Research Hub.

Network members are working on projects in areas ranging from the built environment and consumer attitudes to everyday equipment, consumer goods and furnishing, financing models, ICT, policy, remanufacturing and design.

The foundation also runs a CE100 Acceleration Workshop twice a year for companies, which helps them with cross-company and cross-sector collaboration.

The Circular Cities Research Hub

The Circular Cities Hub launch
The Circular Cities Hub launch

The Circular Cities Research Hub at UCL is building on the visionary ideas first developed by Herbert Giradet in his books Ecopolis, Regenerative City and Self-Sufficient City, by linking them to the ideas of the circular economy, shared economy, low carbon cities and smart cities.

This leads to a picture of what the cities of the future will look like, incorporating the following elements:

  • Cities: circular, eco-cities, regenerative cities, self-sustaining, zero waste cities
  • Urban ecology: urban metabolism, urban symbiosis, circular metabolism
  • Urban ecosystem services: design, valuation, physical impact of nature-based solutions.
  • Land use: flexible space, urban agriculture, green infrastructure, blue infrastructure
  • Urban regeneration: recycling buildings and land, flexible uses and space, urban regenerative capacity, circularity to enable eco-profiled regeneration
  • Infrastructure: life-time homes, recyclable infrastructure, closed-loop systems, ecocycles, adaptable infrastructure, renewable energy
  • Localisation: eco-localisation; bioregionalism; urban self-sufficiency
  • Economy: circular, shared, collaborative, green
  • Lifestyles: sustainable lifestyles, recycling and re-use behaviours, sustainable consumption
  • Big data: resource flows monitoring, smart apps to encourage recycling/re-use behaviours, smart grid to encourage use of renewable energy, sustainable indicators
  • Culture: pro-environmental, recycling, cooperative/collaborative/sharing culture, inter-cultural transferability of circular urban models
  • Policy: governance and regulation for encouraging circular responses
Anyone interested in these areas is encouraged to get in touch.

Education for the circular economy

UCL understands that the next generation needs to be educated in the principles of the circular economy, that we can start even younger than postgraduate level, and to this end the International Baccalaureate has begun a collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to embed systems thinking and a circular economy perspective into its curriculum.

This will provide teachers and students with classroom resources that link circular economy and systems thinking to students’ curriculum learning. For example, the new 2017 Diploma Programme geography course will feature specific references to the circular economy.

At a keynote speech to an audience of 1500 educators at the International Baccalaureate’s Africa, Europe and Middle East Regional Conference in Barcelona in October, Dame Ellen MacArthur defined the closed loop economy as follows: “At the moment our economy is predominantly linear: we take a material out of the ground, we make something out of it and ultimately that product, in the most part, gets thrown away. Circular thinking means considering from the beginning of the process of designing a product, how to design it to fit within a system, and how the materials it contains will be recovered after use.”

Down your green alley

Ellen MacArthur and the folks at UCL are not the only people working to spread ideas about the circular economy.

In Berlin, Germany, Green Alley is a start-up hub of Landbell AG, a company that designs and manufactures take-back systems. It runs an awards scheme that recognises the best green start-ups and innovative entrepreneurs, and last month it bestowed its awards for the third year running.

These awards recognise new business models for start-ups that can support and accelerate the circular transition in the economy at large. There were 191 entries from 52 different countries received – almost double the previous year’s figures.

It’s worth describing the six finalists as well as the winner to show the brevity of innovation in this field:
  • Das Tiffin Projekt (Germany): sustainable take-away packaging: transporting take-away meals in stainless steel boxes – consumers get their meals in the steel boxes, after which they get to keep the box up until seven days before returning to any of the partner restaurants.
  • Design by Sol (UK): a food expiry label that is able to give a more accurate estimation of the edibility of our food – layered with gelatine, if it swells up, the consumer should not consume the product anymore.
  • Glowee (France): Glowee creates bioluminescence, meaning that the start-up produces light by using micro-organisms and methods extracted from nature. The unique lighting technology will soon illuminate shopping windows, but in the future it is possible that it will also light our cities.
  • Green City Solutions (Germany): an urban moss installation reducing air pollution
  • ResQ Club (Finland): an app saving food waste from restaurants: leftovers are sold at reduced rates and consumers can buy quality food at a much cheaper price.
  • restado (Germany): a digital marketplace for leftover construction materials; they can be sold in smaller quantities that are cheaper and better suited for the home DIY builder.
Green City Solutions’ urban moss installation was chosen as the overall winner for its ability to be replicated widely and easily throughout the world to tackle urban air pollution, which is an acute problem in many cities.

Its product, the CityTree, consists of moss cultures that filter the air to make it cleaner. It is powered by solar panels, has a water collection system and is internet-connected, requiring only a minimum amount of maintenance during the year. It claims that the moss growing on the installation can absorb as much carbon dioxide as 275 trees. It also reduces particulate matter and NOx molecules produced by vehicles.

The City Tree
The City Tree


CityTree also monitors the air quality and reports on improvements, while its NFC/iBeacon technology enables wireless and location-based advertising opportunities for business partners to provide a channel for financing.

The CityTree has a reach of up to 50 metres, with 1682 single slots individually controlled and supplied with nutrition, water and salt, which allows for optimal vitality and structure of the moss-plant combinations.

Closed loop plastic

One of the most difficult materials to build into a circular economy is plastic.

But, also in Berlin, SYSTEMIQ, an advisory, business building and investment company, has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the New Plastics Economy initiative consisting of 40 leading companies, including Coca-Cola and Veolia, and cities like Copenhagen and the London Waste and Recycling Board. Its new research on the topic is for publication later this month.

SYSTEMIQ’s business is to identify and create opportunities for system-level impact across energy, food and land use, the circular economy and the built environment.

The New Plastics Economy is an ambitious, three-year initiative to build momentum towards a plastics system that works. Applying the principles of the circular economy, the initiative brings together key stakeholders to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging.

Amongst its aims is the design of a Global Plastics Protocol. This will be a common target for companies to innovate towards, that will overcome the existing fragmentation of plastic types and industrial processes in order to enable the creation of effective markets for recycling plastics.

No one should underestimate the task of converting the present linear system of resource extraction, manufacturing, consumption and dumping to the circular one. But it is inspiring to know that so many people people and cities are already coming around.

David Thorpe is the author of: