Aiming for green grids, not gridlock

By Andrew Sheng

Two days at the Conference on Greening Urban Growth in Penang allowed me to catch up on the latest thinking about the environmental impact of urban development. The impact of industrial pollution is with us every day, with daily smog, contaminated water and coughs and colds that don’t go away. In 2011, the population of the world reached 7 billion. It took 5,000 years for man to reach 20 million, but by A.D. 1,800 it became 1 billion. In 1950, it was only 2.5 billion, which meant that in my life time alone, the population has nearly tripled.

Man’s impact on nature comes primarily from our usage of energy. Canadian eco-scientist Vaclav Smil ( remarked that in the Roman age, the annual energy consumption per capita was 10 giga joules per capita. The average usage per American today is 34 times higher than the Romans, with a life expectancy 3 times longer, meaning that we are consuming Earth’s resources at a geometric rate.

All life (human, animal or plant) depends on photosynthesis (conversion of sunlight into energy by plants) without which diversity of life simply dies. On Easter Island, the population disappeared when the last tree was cut down. Smil estimates that we have been depleting the Earth’s biomass at a frightening rate, so greening our buildings and the way we live is an imperative.

Climate change is another way of saying that the balance between man and our plant life has been seriously damaged. Our urban life is happier when we have more plant life around us.

I was not aware that 80 percent of carbon emissions come from cities, so greening cities and making city lifestyles low carbon is critical to our happiness, health and survival. This conference, organized by the Growth Dialogue (the successor to the Growth Commission chaired by Nobel Laureate Michael Spence) together with Think City of Penang, brought together renowned architects, urban planners and city officials from India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, and economists to try and bring inter-disciplinary approach to green urban living.

Australian system dynamics thinker John Mathews ( argued that industrial capitalism that has reached the finite limits of the planet cannot be allowed to continue. If the current trend of migration into urbanization and middle income continues, there will be 6 billion middle-class consumers by 2050, compared with 1 billion currently. A new model of consumption and production has to be developed.