Regional differences in the paths towards a circular economy

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

Countries with a lower income are more “circular” than richer counterparts. Many residents simply cannot afford to throw away valuable material. In the informal sector, a great deal of economic activity revolves around sorting and reusing waste, including imported waste from rich countries. About 0.5% of the urban population in developing countries – 1.5 million in India alone – tries to make a living by collecting items from landfills, with all the health risks this entails. An estimated 270,000 people die each year from the incineration of waste. It is estimated that in 2025 landfills will cause 8 – 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Every year Circle-Economy is publishing its Circularity Report. In the 2020 version, circular growth paths for three groups of countries are differentiated[1].

Build countries (for instance: India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines)

These countries lack sufficient means to satisfy their basic needs, and it is not surprising that their economic activities mostly fall within the regenerative capacity of the earth. Most of these countries show progress in reducing poverty and their emerging middle class want to enjoy greater consumption. The building industry already is the second sector after agriculture.  70% of the buildings India needs in 2030 are yet to be built. 

Paths towards circularity:

  • Application of circular principles in construction (design for the future and energy-neutrality)
  • Education and developing entrepreneurial skills in the informal economy
  • Using residues from agriculture to develop a sizable bio economy

Growth countries (for instance: China, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam and Egypt)

The second pathway relates to emerging economies characterized by fast economic growth and associated material consumption and services, rapid build-up of capital goods and an expanding industrial sector. They will continue to grow, but have to channel this growth by the application of circular principles.  

Paths towards circularity:

  • Channeling fast growing consumption through new service-based business and shared-use models and healthier principles. For instance, the reemergence in China of the use of bicycles.  
  • Transforming the informal economy, creating better living conditions and improving food security.
  • Decoupling economic growth from extraction of resources and use of carbon-based energy. 

Shift countries (for instance: The United States of America, Japan, Argentina and member countries of the European Union)

Because of their ecological footprint, these countries must shift away from over-consuming the planet’s resources, and reinvent their affluent and comfortable lifestyles, also taking account of large internal differences. 

Paths towards circularity:

  • Consuming smarter through (1) product lifetime extension; (2) increase material efficiency through new technology and design and (3) promotion and adoption of sharing business models.
  • Taking control of the impact of their imports and exports, for instance by radically reducing the international trade of secondary materials and products (waste).
  • Ramp up the infrastructural transformation required to secure abundant capacity for renewable energy generation.

[1] https://assets.website-files.com/5e185aa4d27bcf348400ed82/5e26ead616b6d1d157ff4293_20200120%20-%20CGR%20Global%20-%20Report%20web%20single%20page%20-%20210x297mm%20-%20compressed.pdf

Stop the depletion of the earth

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

Brighton Waste House, a project of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Photo: University of (public domain).

The picture above is the Waste house at the university campus of Brighton, constructed from local waste.  In our society reuse of waste still is limited. Repair of household appliances seems to be not done: Last year, three devices in my home broke. No shops could fix them, although surfing the Internet revealed the existence of replacement parts.  I’d better buy a new one, they advised. 

The flow of materials

Our economy is characterized by the take-make-waste principle, which results in an excess of cheap mass products that are thrown away at the end of their life cycle. Moreover, the majority of the raw materials are not recycled or reused in low quality. The result is a large amount of waste, pollution and the rapid exhaustion of raw materials worldwide.

A closer look at the flowchart of materials below is enlightening. Look here for a larger copy

The graph reveals that the volume of resources extracted in 2017 was 84,4 Gt (billions of ton), supplemented by 8.4 Gt reused ones: Minerals (37.9 Gt,) ores (9.6 Gt, fossil fuels (16,6 Gt) and biomass (28,7 Gt). In 2017 the global economy was 9,1% circular. In 2019 only 8,6%.

Of this material input in 2017 (92.8 Gt), 36.0 Gt became part of the long-term stock of buildings, roads, cars and other capital goods. The stock of capital goods (houses, buildings, infrastructure, fleet) has expanded considerably in recent decades, which can lead to a large increase in potential waste in the coming years.

The largest part (56.8 Gt) was used for the production of goods with a lifetime that does not extend beyond 2017.

Of the total waste of 19,4 Gt in 2017, 8.4 Gt is reused, for example by water treatment, the production of biogas, through recycling (only 1,4 Gt) and by composting. The majority of recycled material is of low quality. The remainder, 9,2 Gt is ‘lost’ and is scattered in the environment.  For instance, through microfibers that are added to the ocean and might return in the food chain.

Towards a circular economy

The problem of the ‘take-make-waste’-principle is not waste only. The linear economy on which this principle is based is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions and, moreover, leads to the depletion of raw materials by rich and emerging countries or better, their rich minorities all over the world. The extraction of resources by contemporary and previous generations will stagnate the developing of future generations. Replacement by the circular principle can correct this lack of justice. 

Materials such as metals, plastics and chemicals cannot return to nature without processing. Instead, we distinguish four ways to stretch their lifespan and preserve their value, so that no new raw materials have to be extracted.

  • Repairing and sharing;
  • Reuse by other users without major changes;
  • Renovate and overhaul, dismantle and assemble into a new product, possibly with the addition of new functionalities;
  • Recycling: tracing back the product to its original material, preferably at the highest possible level (for example, plastic waste becomes ‘virgin’ plastic). In this case the original product can be re-manufactured.

A circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to keep products and materials in permanent use, without the need to exploit additional resources. 

It is based on four principles:

  • Decoupling the provision of new products and services from the availability of finite resources. 
  • Design out waste and pollution and other negative externalities of economic activity that harm human health and natural systems. This includes toxic substances, greenhouse gas emissions, air, land and water pollution, and traffic congestion.
  • Maintaining the highest value of components and materials by designing them for reuse, rework and recycling.
  • Maintaining natural capital through the circulation of nutrients and creating the conditions for regeneration of, for example, soil.

We are at the beginning of a long process and we are running out of the time available

Promises of hydrogen: exaggerated or underestimated

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

e-bike fuelled with hydrogen

Hydrogen can play an important role in the storage of cheap and surplus green electricity, as an alternative to natural gas and as a fuel for buses, trains, planes, and ships.

The production of hydrogen

The process of electrolysis brings water into contact with electricity, resulting in oxygen and hydrogen. A 100% clean process, provided the use of energy from carbon-free sources. ‘Blue’ hydrogen occurs when the CO2 released during the production of electricity is collected and stored.

Advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen.

The storage of hydrogen is easy, particularly if conversed into ammonia. A kilo of hydrogen is producing the same amount of energy as a fully-fledged Tesla Power Wall. A tank with 60,000 m3 of ammonia can deliver more than 200 million kilowatt hours. That is the annual production of 30 wind turbines on land. The problem with hydrogen is that 60% of energetic value is lost when electricity is used to make hydrogen and hydrogen is converted it into electricity again. Storing electricity in a battery yields only 5% loss of value.

Hydrogen plant in Rotterdam (blue containers) and the apartment complex (left center) that will be heated with hydrogen. Photo: DNV GL

Heating

A possible application of hydrogen is as a substitute for natural gas, which limits energy loss to 30%. For an apartment complex in Rotterdam, hydrogen will be produced locally and transported via dedicated gas pipelines (photo). An electric heat pump would have reduced energy use with 75%, given perfect isolation. Exactly to avoid cost of isolation, housing corporations are considering hydrogen in older houses. Eventually, heating on hydrogen will be reserved for historic city centers, where few alternatives are available.

Transport

An also frequently mentioned application of hydrogen is transport. In the meantime, for all forms of transport – even bicycling – hydrogen models are available. 

With the foregoing in mind, hydrogen as fuel for passenger cars – not to speak of e-bicycles –  is quite odd. Although the range is about 600 km and refueling is fast, the difference with electric cars is reducing fast. For other means of transport, the verdict may be more positive. The rule is, the larger the desired range and the heavier the load, the more the benefits of hydrogen equal or outweigh the advantages of batteries. Examples are buses, lorries, but also planes and ships

Energy storage

The production costs of solar energy in desert areas are considerably lower than those in Europe. This is mainly due to the considerably greater light intensity, which means that the yield of solar panels and collectors is twice as high. The Gulf States see themselves as future export countries of hydrogen, in the form of ammonia. 

The gas group Air Products & Chemicals has announced that it will build a hydrogen factory in NEOM, a mega city in Saudi Arabia, which is under development. This factory will produce annually 2.3 million tons of hydrogen (1.2 million tons of ammonia). This factory, due to be completed in 2025, will be the largest in the world.

The European Union also has biggest plans. In 2024, 1 million to hydrogen must already be produced, which should have increased tenfold by 2013.

The Netherlands is investigating the possibility of converting wind energy generated in the North Sea to hydrogen on site, if there is an overcapacity on the network. This can save billions in grid reinforcement. The powerful sea breeze may ensure that production is competitive with to imported hydrogen.

Hydrogen storage – Photo NASA

Whether the substantial potential of hydrogen is realized depends in the first place from the availability of cheap sources of wind or solar energy and the willingness of the western world to engage in new dependency from the ‘former’ oil producing countries who can deliver cheap hydrogen.

Energy-neutral houses are within reach

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

An example of an almost fully sustainable buildings (according to BREEAM) is the Bloomberg HQ in London (see photograph). Among the many (technological) means to achieve this is, are a green living wall, natural ventilation systems, and 4,000 integrated ceiling panels that combine heating, cooling, and lighting. 

Buildings and residential houses are the largest energy consumers in cities (heating, warming, cooling and lightning), not to speak about the production of building materials. They account for 40% of the global energy consumption. Massive realization of energy-neutral buildings (NZEBs) is therefore top priority for urban developers.

Copenhagen plans to be CO2-neutral in 2025 and is on track despite significant growth in population and jobs[1]. District heating and cooling of almost the whole city is the most important tool to achieve this, along with the limitation of car-use. Copenhagen implements a smart thermal grid, that uses all the residual heat that comes from industrial and commercial activities. Seawater is used for cooling.

Copenhagen is a shining example for the rest of Europe. There is sufficient residual heat to supply 90% of the heat demand of all houses and buildings. The Heat Europe project tries to link areas with a surplus of residual heat to areas with a shortage. The video below shows the ambitions, contours and outcomes of this project.

New York is exemplary in another way. The Dirty Buildings Bill requires that 50,000 buildings reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050[2]. This includes the installation of new windows, insulation, and other retrofit procedures. The law applies to buildings over 25,000 square feet, and together they account for half of all emissions from buildings, although they cover only 2% of total number of buildings in the city[3].

Building permits are useful instruments to influence energy consumption and to promote circularity. In a building permit, requirements can be set for the use of less cement and steel and to limit energy consumption. Switching to sustainable timber is an option for 90% of homes and 70% of offices being built. At the other hand, building in an energy neutral, or even positive way offers many advantages. That is why 37% of British developers are convinced that in a few years’ time their portfolio will largely consist of green buildings. 

Besides, a city like London could save over $ 11 billion over the next 5 years by using existing buildings more efficiently and avoiding new construction, which won’t be a problem in the post-Covid era when one or two days working from home will be the new normal.


[1] https://medium.com/everything-thats-next/this-is-how-copenhagen-plans-to-go-carbon-neutral-by-2025-70849d2d67dc

[2] https://www.fastcompany.com/90336307/new-york-city-is-about-to-pass-its-own-green-new-deal?utm_source=postup&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Fast%20Company%20Daily&position=5&partner=newsletter&campaign_date=04182019

[3] https://www.archdaily.com/915656/new-york-citys-mayor-is-planning-to-ban-new-glass-skyscrapers?utm_medium=email&utm_source=ArchDaily%20List&kth=

Climate policy, where fighting global warming and poverty meet

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

Neighborhood Poverty and Household Financial Security | The Pew Charitable  Trusts

Challenges

After the eradication of Covid-19, the world must focus again on the two epoch-making challenges, mitigation of global warming and fighting poverty. According to the World Economic Forum, the mayor threats of humanity. By selecting proper policy tools, both challenges can be addressed at once

The termination of greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 requires huge investments, roughly $ 50 to $ 200 per ‘saved’ cubic meter CO2-equivalents.  At the same time, these investments provide a global economic stimulus of $ 16,600 billion.

Addressing global warming

In summary, municipal authorities worldwide have to work together with all stakeholders, citizens not in the last place, to reduce global warming, and implement a series of activities such as:

  • Covering all suitable roofs with solar panels;
  • Installing wind turbines in seas adjacent to densely populated areas;
  • Creating sufficient storage options for the short and medium term;
  • Creating ‘smart grids’ to manage the production and consumption of electricity;
  • Heating houses with district heating systems powered by industrial residual heat, hydrogen or heat pumps;
  • Reducing energy use through insulation, efficient use of buildings and smart thermostatic systems;
  • Scrutinizing the necessity of new construction and take care that it apples to BREEAM requirements;
  • Using ‘green’ hydrogen for industrial processes
  • Using biotechnology to remove oil, coal and gas from industrial production
  • Reducing use of cars (electric ones included) by urban design, enabling walking and cycling opportunities by public transport and by MaaS.
  • Replace where possible flying by traveling by train
  • Reuse of waste at the highest possible level;
  • Intensification of responsible production of food;
  • Adjustment of consumption patterns like mitigating the use of meat.

Despite the magnitude of the challenge involved by the transition to climate-neutral cities, there is reason for optimism. Money is not the big issue. The required investments will pay for themselves in the long term and the transition to clean technology will contribute to responsible economic growth. However….

Addressing poverty

The overriding limitation is the lack of skilled labor and here is the connection with fighting poverty. The transition to an energy-neutral society will offer ample job opportunities. That is why care for jobs, a reasonable income, adequate housing and education go hand in hand with combating global warming. Jobs are the best guarantee for a reasonable income and job opportunities are an incentive to invest in education. 

It is already ten years ago, that the United nations called for a ‘Global Green New Deal’ in which developed countries would invest at least 1% of GDP on reducing carbon dependency, while developing economies should spend 1% of GDP on improving access to clean water and sanitation for the poor as well as strengthening social safety nets. 

At this moment Green New Deal programs are at the brim of implementation in the US (What a relief!!!!), Canada and Europe as well. These programs are achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the next decades and potentially create millions of well-paying jobs in order to create the necessary infrastructure and to reduce the number of poor, work- or homeless people correspondingly. Add to that protection against monopolies, investments in public transport, access to affordable housing and healthy food, and justice for the historically marginalized people in the transition to a new economy.

If these promises become true, the eradication of Covid-19 will be followed by significant steps towards a more humane world. 

Heading for a doughnut economy: A brief encounter

Next months, my posts deal with the prospects of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.  

Urban farm – Pinterest

The model for a doughnut economy has been developed by the British economist Kate Raworth in a report for Oxfamentitled A Safe and Just Space for Humanity and the idea quickly spread throughout the world. The essence is that social and environmental sustainability must be guiding principles for economic policy in the 21th century and together direct economic behavior. There is no triple bottom-line: Social and environmental sustainability are in the lead, economy follows.

The idea behind ​​the doughnut-model is simple. if you only look at the shape of a doughnut, you see two circles. A small circle in the middle and a large circle on the outside. The smallest circle represents the minimal social objectives (basic-needs) that apply to each country. The large circle represents the self-sustaining capacity of the planet. All societies must develop policies that stay between the two lines. Where economic behavior nowadays has far reaching consequences that go beyond both lines, future economic policy must aim to make societies thrive between the lines.

Prosperity within limits

The actions below mirror policy actions to prevent overshooting the ecological ceiling and to comply with the social basement, albeit adapted to the capabilities of developed countries. The time horizon is 25 years. Below I give a few examples.

Prevention of overshooting the ecological ceiling:

  1. Reduction to zero of greenhouse gas emissions by the combined use of solar, wind and thermal energy. Hydrogen, salt, batteries, and warm water reservoirs are used for storage.
  2. Local plants are clean; toxic or otherwise dangerous emissions are prevented or temporarily sequestered in order to maintain clean air.
  3. Support of local farmers to restructure their operations in order to regenerate soils, increase biodiversity and contribute significantly to the local food supply. The selling of their products is boosted by substantial tax advantages for certificated products.
  4. Reduction of car use by reconstructing cities in order to limit displacements.
  5. Realizing full-circularity; the import of raw materials is stalled, with the (temporal) exception of indispensable components of batteries.
  6. The use of nitrogen is limited until an acceptable level of emissions in the air or in the groundwater is reached.
  7. Construction of reservoirs for drinking water and water for agricultural applications to balance water extraction and supply of water.

Complying with the social basement

  1. Rebalancing material rewards and job satisfaction, for instance by substantial reduction of income inequality.
  2. Compulsory education from 2 – 18, in combination with internships in companies and institutions.
  3. Tax benefits for B-certified companies (companies for which societal interest are leading).
  4. Local government, companies and institutions work together to offer all adults engaging and challenging jobs with salaries that enable a decent and independent life.
  5. Prices of (imported) products that damage health or the environment (or both) are listed and substantially taxed. 
  6. The cost of health care and assurance depends on obtaining certificates for a healthy life and preventing lifestyle related illnesses such as being overweight.
  7. Citizens can vote directly in matters related to their immediate living environment. 
  8. Decent housing for all adults, and adequate housing for students, situated in an attractive and safe living environment.

A global oriented-mindset

A future of responsible prosperity requires a new mindset, including the meaning of the concept of prosperity itself. Zero greenhouse gas emissions do not only require exchanging carbon energy sources by wind, sun and earth, but also new consumption pattern. Meat becomes a delicacy, to be consumed accordingly. Circular production requires a more efficient use of goods, higher prices, superior quality, the repair of broken devises instead of their replacement, and a less fashion-dependent design. With respect to the traditional yardstick of prosperity, a stable GDP, rather than a growing one is probably the highest conceivable goal, if it should be a goal at all. Wages below modal will rise considerably, wages above modal will decrease, the highest 10% in particular.

If we consider the world as a whole, the policy implications are even more dramatic. A considerable part of the world population still lives below the social basement. The population of these countries is growing fast and concentrates in cities characterized by heavy pollution, traffic jams, dirty industries, poor housing, sanitation and water supply and increasing insecurity and inequality.

In these countries, growth of GDP, the production of goods and services, and the domestic markets as well are necessary for at least one decade. In combination with policies to control population growth and pollution, to use renewable resources and to improve the infrastructure; public transportation, water supply, housing and sanitation in the first place. 

Where governments in developed countries can focus on a transition from traditional growth towards sustainable prosperity immediately, developing countries must simultaneously manage a decade of ‘traditional’ economic growth and a transition to sustainable prosperity.

The social origin of global warming

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings and also with the prospects of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Cities of the future. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.  

Climate Change | National Geographic Society

As the map below shows, poorer countries have already suffered more from global warming because they are located in the warmest parts of the world, like Africa, South Asia, and Central America. It also applies to the southern and poorest part of the US.

Country-level economic impact of global warming – Image National Academy of Sciences

There is another reality to face. Not only the poorest countries will suffer most from climate change, they hardly can be blamed for it. A recent Oxfam report Extreme carbon inequality shows that the poorest half of the world population – around 3.5 billion people – is responsible for only 10% of total global emissions from individual consumption. About 50% of the emissions come from the richest 10% of people around the world. They have an average carbon footprint that is 11 times as high as that of the poorest half, and 60 times as high as that the poorest 10%. Even a 50% reduction in consumption by the top 10% and a doubling of consumption by the lower 50% would result in a worldwide decrease of consumption of about 15%[1]. Within all countries, the production of greenhouse gasses varies with income. 

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Per capita consumption-related emissions in G20 countries

The graph shows that the concept of rich versus poor countries is partly misleading. A small part of the population of all countries has affluent and still-growing opportunity to consume and to contribute to the production of greenhouse gasses; the majority of the population stays far behind.

This national elites with its numerous connections with international business and politics have prevented adequate social and environmental policies for more than half a century, including the only measures that could have prevented global warming, namely the internalization of external costs[2] and in particular carbon tax[3]. The result: the economic prospects of the majority of the global population stay behind and moreover it will suffer most from global warming.


[1] https://www-cdn.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en.pdf

[2] https://medium.com/@aimunm83/want-to-solve-climate-change-solve-the-economy-ce516e31d361

[3] https://medium.com/the-sensible-soapbox/british-columbias-carbon-tax-is-working-3ea81114be5a

Cities are unhealthy places but poverty makes it worse.

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of urban life but also with the prospects of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplementary reading included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.  

Polluted air: Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

During the last decades, health has improved significantly. Globally, between 1990 and 2015, the worldwide mortality rate of children below the age of 5 dropped from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births to 43. But this is an average and hiding large differences between countries and within countries as the graph below illustrates[1].

Under 5-year child mortality rate – Source: The Urban Disadvantage, 2015.

The global decrease in child mortality resulted from successfully combatting infectious diseases, better medical care, more breastfeeding, measles vaccination, vitamin A supplementation, and the use of impregnated mosquito nets. At the same time, the AIDS epidemic threatened to reverse the progress made, in particular in eastern and southern Africa[2]. Moreover, in developing countries in particular, improvements in health of the poorest groups were not accompanied by improvement of income, job opportunities and living conditions, which resulted in a huge and persistent increase in family size, making the poverty even worse. 

The poverty of the rural population in developing and emerging countries triggered an unprecedented urbanization. Unfortunately, cities appeared to be unhealthy places, in particular migrants and other poor inhabitants. Infectious diseases are still widespread. In developing countries, they are associated with the lack of sanitation and drinking water. The presence of mosquitos is a lasting danger. Polluted air is threatening health in each city. According to the Global Burden of Diseases Study of the World Health Organization, 4.2 million deaths worldwide every year are caused by particulate pollution[3].

India

Take India for example. Air pollution is the direct cause of 627.000 deaths annually. Moreover, an official study of 1,405 cities reveals that only 50% of urban areas have water supply connections and that water is supplied on an average for only three hours a day. Waste disposal and sewage treatment plants are missing in most Indian cities: 30% of the households have no toilets, the coverage of the sewage network is merely 12% while the treatment of sewage is even lower at 3%. Most of the untreated sewage is discharged into rivers, ponds or lakes, which are also the main source of potable water[4].

In the past, cities in emerging and now developed countries where extremely unhealthy places too, characterized by frequent outbreaks of epidemics that regularly killed large sections of the population. Yet, living conditions, including sanitation and availability of clean drinking water and medical care have improved. Growing prosperity and deliberate policies were accompanies by decreasing family size.  The air has become cleaner but air pollution continues to be a major problem. Still, large wealth related differences in health persist.

Asthma

Many chronic diseases in emerging and developed countries are associated with air quality. More than 26 million people in the U.S. have asthma, and therefore difficulties with breathing. African-American residents die three times more from asthma than whites. They often live in segregated communities with poor housing, near heavy industry, transportation centers and other sources of air pollution[5]. The concentration of particulate matter near main road arteries is irresponsibly high, especially on warm, windless days.


Amsterdam

In Amsterdam too, the level of pollution from particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exceeded the standards of the World Health Organization (WHO). As a consequence, the life of an average citizen is shortened with one year [6]. Moreover, 4.5% of the loss of healthy years is the result of exposure to polluted air too. To put this outcome in context: The percentage is less than the damage to public health caused by smoking (13.1%) and overweight (5.0%), but more than the damage caused by lack of movement (3.5%) and excess drinking (2.8%)[7].


Lifestyle-related health problems

At the same time, growing prosperity of city-dwellers comes with lifestyle related health problems, the abuse of alcohol and drugs included, like heart problems, cancer, obese and  stress.  Their solution requires major changes in the design of cities and the behaviour of citizens, and include the provision of parks and other green spaces, making cities more walkable, a general reduction of cars, the transition to electric vehicles, and changing food and moving habits.

As a consequence, improving health implies improving the availability and affordability of care and fighting poverty as well. Many diseases are directly related to living conditions, which in turn are related to wealth. A billion city dwellers worldwide live in slums, on sidewalks or below bridges. Nearly all of them lack drinking water and sanitation.

Therefore, a humane city will focus on providing adequate care and for all its citizens, accompanied by healthy living conditions, shelter, work and income. 


[1] https://www.savethechildren.org/content/dam/usa/reports/advocacy/sowm/sowm-2015.pdf

[2] https://data.unicef.org/resources/levels-trends-child-mortality-2017/

[3] http://ghdx.healthdata.org/gbd-2016

[4] http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/smart-cities-dont-make-me-laugh/article19897715.ece

[5] https://nextcity.org/features/view/why-racial-disparities-in-asthma-are-an-urban-planning-issue

[6] https://www.infomil.nl/onderwerpen/lucht-water/luchtkwaliteit/regelgeving/wet-milieubeheer/beoordelen/grenswaarden/

[7] https://www.parool.nl/nieuws/verwachte-verbetering-blijft-uit-lucht-in-de-stad-nog-net-zo-vies~bea8f836/

The holy grail: Full transparent window and solar panel at the same time

Buildings account for 40% of the global energy use. As a consequence, the mass realisation of net zero-energy buildings (NZEBs) is top priority for urban developers. therefore the integration of photovoltaics (BIPV) in the billions of windows is a top challenge that seems to be realized.

Promising steps

At first sight, harvesting energy from sunlight and maintaining full-transparency seem incompatible. Photovoltaics use ambient light at the same frequencies the human eye can see, and efforts to increase the efficiency of sun panels are at odds with maintaining transparency.

The past 10 years researchers at MIT, UCLA, Michigan State University and several other institutions – Delft Technical University among them – have made progress in bridging both objectives[1]

Until to date Luminescent Solar Concentratorsare the most promising technology to combine harvesting electricity and transparency[2].

Luminescent solar concentrators catch both diffused and direct solar radiation. The light penetrates a so-called waveguide, a polymeric or glassy optical plate or thin film coated with luminescent materials.  Within the waveguide the light is moving sideways. It is absorbed and turned into electricity by narrow strips of photovoltaic cells, which are either sporadically embedded in the plate or placed at the plate’s ends.

The efficiency of the process depends largely from the chromophores, the particles in the luminescent coating that have to catch as much light as possible. At the same time, these particles need to change the wavelength of the light in order to prevent other particles absorbing the light again on its way to the photovoltaic cells in the periphery of the window. For the time being, the effectiveness of this process is at the expense of the transparency of the window. With other words, the more electricity is harvested, the less transparent the window is. Nevertheless, the results so far already are commercialized successfully[3]. A few examples:

5575 m2skylight with 20% transparency in former Bell Building by Onyx Solar

Onyx Solar

Onyx solar is a global company (Spanish by origin) that is developing and producing energy harvesting glass panes for construction and retrofitting purposes[4]. Onyx Solar offers fully glass panels in stunning designs and in in specific colors, shapes and transparency (title picture). The company is able to trade off different degrees of transparency and color with different degrees of harvesting electricity. For instance, its most transparent panels (XL Vision) combine a transparency of 30% with a peak power of 28 watt (m2)[5]. This is about 25% of the output of ‘regular’ thin film solar panels[6].

Physee

Physee

Physee is a startup from Delft Technical University in the Netherlands[7]. During the 2017 World Economic Forum, the company was called ‘technology pioneer’. Its flagship product is the Power Window, which surpasses the transparency of Onyx’s windows, but – not by surprise – has a lower electricity generating capacity: 8 – 10 watt (m2)[8]. The company deploys thulium, a rare earth metal on the waveguide, together with a CIGS PV-cell strip attached to one glass-edge[9]. Currently, a few companies are deploying Power Windowsto support the development of this ambitious B-company.

The transparency of ClearView

Is a break-through underway?

A couple of years ago, a team directed by Richard Lunt of Michigan State University, took a different approach[10]. The principle behind it resembles that of the LSC discussed above. The concentrator also is a thin layer of material that can be placed on windows, phone screens or any flat, clear surface.  Its thickness is less than 1/1,000th of a millimeter, and it is virtually indistinguishable from glass. This layer captures the photons of ultraviolet and infrared light while allowing the photons of visible light to pass through. For this reason, the result is exceptionally transparent to the human eye. 

This technology is called ClearView power. The short video below is disclosing some technical details of this technology.

Ubiquitous Energy

In an effort to commercialize transparent solar technology Lunt founded the company Ubiquitous Energy[11], which is currently in the rolling out its first windows/panels for commercial use. I couldn’t find information about the window’s electricity generating power at this time, except that the company announced that 50 watt (m2) is feasible.

Meanwhile…..

architects and urbanists might follow the example of theInternational School in Copenhagen[12]that covered 6000 mof its walls with green solar panels to produce more then 50% of its electricity and also to contribute significantly to the building’s aesthetic.


[1]http://www.glasstopower.com/g2p/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Luminescent_solar_concentrators_Brovelli.pdf

[2]J.W.E. Wiegman, E. van der Kolk, Building integrated thin film luminescent solar concentrators: detailed efficiency characterization and light transport modelling, Solar Energy Materials & Solar Cells 103 (2012) 41-47.

[3]https://www.business.com/articles/transparent-solar-windows-construction/

[4]https://www.onyxsolar.com/projects

[5]https://www.onyxsolar.com/product-services/technical-specifications

[6]The bottom of this sector of the Onyx Solar website compares in a visual way the levels of transparancy: https://www.onyxsolar.com/product-services/amorphous-pv-glass

[7]http://www.physee.eu/products#powerwindow

[8]http://www.wattisduurzaam.nl/5871/energie-opwekken/zonne-energie/30-vierkante-meter-delftse-zonneramen-rabobank-eindhoven/

[9]The applicability of thulium has been studied by Lisset Manzano Chávez, in her master theses Optimization of a Luminescent Solar Concentrator: Simulation and application in PowerWindow designat the Delft University of Technology.

[10]The principles behind this process are disclosed in a paper titled ‘Emergence of highly transparent photovoltaics for distributed applications’, published in Nature Research (2017)

[11]http://ubiquitous.energy

[12]https://inhabitat.com/this-danish-school-is-completely-covered-with-over-12000-sea-green-solar-panels/

Amsterdam: Heading for a circular economy

Demolition waste – Photo Jim Henderson Licensed under Creative Commons

Possibly, in 2050 the word wastecan be removed from our dictionaries. At that time, the Dutch economy will be circular according to the government. Meaning in essence, that all raw materials are reused infinitely. In order to reach this goal, an agreement with respect to the use of raw materials has been concluded between 325 parties. Its first milestone is halving the use of primary raw materials before 2030[1].

Many are skeptical of the outcomes of this agreements. Admittedly, 38.7% of the Dutch population feels that we are on the right track, although progress is slow. Jan Jonker[2], professor of business administration at Radboud University, is more pessimistic:  We do not think circular yet. Institutions, from legal to fiscal, are fully geared to the linear economy.

Amsterdam is making progress. In 2015, the municipality explored opportunities for a circular economy, which have been published in Amsterdam Circular: Vision and roadmap for city and region[3]. Dozens of projects have been started, albeit mostly on a small scale and starting from a learning-by-doing perspective.

The report Amsterdam circular; evaluation and action perspectives[4](2017) is an account of the evaluation of these projects. It concludes that a circular economy is realistic.  The city has also won the World Smart City Award for Circular Economy for its approach – facilitating small-scaled initiatives directed at metropolitan goals. Nevertheless, a substantial upscaling must take place in the shortest possible time.

Below, I focus on the construction sector, which includes all activities related to demolition, renovation, transformation and building. Its impact is large; buildings account for more than 50% of the total use of materials on earth, including valuable ones such as steel, copper, aluminum and zinc. In the Netherlands, 25% of CO2 emissions and 40% of the energy use comes from the built environment.

By circular construction we mean design, construction, and demolition of houses and buildings focused on high-quality use and reuse of materials and sustainability ambitions in the field of energy, water, biodiversity, and ecosystems as well. For example, the Bullitt Centerin Seattle, sometimes called the greenest commercial building in the world, is fully circular[5]

Photo: James Provost licensed under Creative Commons

The construction sector is not a forerunner in innovation, but of great importance with respect to circularity goals. The Amsterdam metropolitan region is planning to build 250,000 new homes deploying circular principles before 2050.

The evaluation of the projects that have been set up in response to the Amsterdam Circular Planhas yielded a number of insights that are important for upscaling: The most important is making circularity one of the key criteria in granting building permits. The others are the role of urban planning and the contribution of urban mining, which will be dealt with first.

The role of urban planning

Urban planning plays a crucial role in the promotion of circularity. It is mandatory that all new plans depart from circular construction; only then a 100% reuse of components after 2050 is possible. The renovation of existing houses and buildings is even more challenging than the construction of new ones. Therefore, circular targets must also apply here. Dialogue with the residents, and securing their long-term perspective is essential. The transformation of the office of Alliander in Duiven into an energy neutral and circular building is exemplary (photo below).

Photo: VolkerWessels Vastgoed 

The contribution of urban mining

Existing buildings include countless valuable materials. The non-circular way of building in the past impedes securing these materials in a useful form during the demolition process. Deploying dedicated procedures enables the salvation of a large percentage of expensive materials. In this case we speak of urban mining. Unfortunately, at this time re-used materials are often more expensive than new ones. Therefore, a circular economy will benefit with a shift from taxes on labor to taxes on raw materials.

Issuing building permits

The municipality of Amsterdam made a leap forwards with respect to issuing building permits to enable circularity[6]. Based on the above-mentioned definition of circular building, five themes are addressed in the assessment of new building projects: Use of materials, water, energy, ecosystems as well as resilience and adaptivity. Each of these themes can scrutinized from four angles:

  • The reduction of the use of materials, water and energy
  • The degree of reuse and the way in which reuse is guaranteed.
  • The sustainable production and purchase of all necessary materials.
  • Sensible management, for example a full registration of all components used.

Application of these angles to the five themes yields 32 criteria. A selection of these criteria is made in each project, depending from whether the issuing of building permits or renovation is concerned, and also from where the building takes place. For instance, a greenfield site versus a central location in a monumental environment. 

One of the projects

In recent years, the municipality of Amsterdam has included circular criteria in four tenders: Buiksloterham, Centrumeiland, the Zuidas (all residential buildings) and Sloterdijk (retail and trade). On the Zuidas, the first circular building permit was granted in December 2017. 30% of the final judgment were based on circularity criteria.

The winner is AM, in collaboration with Team V Architects. In their project Cross over, they combined more than 250 homes with offices, work space for small businesses and a place for creative start-ups. The project doesn’t have a fixed division between homes and offices. Reuse in future demolition is facilitated by a materials passport and by building with dry connections, enabling easy dismantling. 

Crossover – photo Zwartlicht 

Need to organize learning

The detailed elaboration of the 32 criteria for circularity to be applied in tenders, covers more than 40 densely printed pages. One cannot expect from potential candidates to meet the requirements routinely. It would therefore be welcomed if the municipality of Amsterdam shared its knowledge with applicants collectively during the submission process.

I also would welcome ‘pre-competitive’ cooperation by communities with manufacturers, knowledge institutions, clients and construction partners with the aim to develop circular building. This involves for instance standardization of the dimensioning of components (windows, frames, floorboards) and the ‘rehabilitation’ of ‘demolished’ components while maintaining the highest possible value. This might be combined with a database in which developers can search for available components. 

In Zwolle, another strategy is followed: the municipality, housing corporations and construction companies have formed a Concilium[7], which aims to significantly expand the already planned construction of houses, using circular principles.

Circularity requires closing circles. Collaboration within the supply-chain is one of these.


[1]https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/rapporten/2016/09/14/bijlage-1-nederland-circulair-in-20

[2]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/circulaire-economie/27945/de-stand-in-het-land-zijn-we-al-een-beetje-circulair

[3]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-0/

[4]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[5]http://www.bullittcenter.org

[6]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[7]https://www.weblogzwolle.nl/nieuws/61325/ambitieus-plan-voor-zwolse-woningmarkt.html