Cities, people in the race against a carbon time bomb

Moving towards renewable energy takes more than a signature for the Paris Climate Agreement. It is affected by the way our cities shape our life, and how we choose to live.

How do we perceive our use of energy?

As an urban planner, I can talk land use, I can talk green spaces. But energy? The closest I can come to is that I switch on my lights, electric fan, and laptop everyday. I know I’m tired of breathing in car fumes during my ten-minute walk to the office. I read that the Larcen C glacier just cracked—a part of Antarctica, no matter how tiny, is breaking apart.

Environmentalists fuel the climate change fire with the “only one earth” messaging. The sea level rise, the pollution affecting our health, and rising temperatures—all of these are happening because of you, and because of me. And the rest of our human race family.

I would need some engineers to get my calculations on power usage running, and statisticians to correlate that to scientists’ environmental data. So let me talk about energy in the language I understand more: Through cities, and through people who shape them.

The World Economic Forum reports how energy is consumed for three things: Mobility, industry, and households. These are the basics that constitute the growth of a city.

A metropolitan lens on energy

Now, I live in the rapidly growing metropolitan of Manila, where the recorded average commute time is 45.5 minutes, where malls are supersized, and where sprawl costs more than most of our population can afford.

Our metropolitan population is now at twelve (12) million, and continues to grow by the hundred thousands. The National Capital Region is pressured to accommodate fifteen (15) million at daytime, and sees in-migration and reproduction adding to the already high density. Mega-Manila, which includes the suburbs of neighboring regions, bloats at twenty-one (21) million people.

When we talk about renewable energy, what scale do we consider? Image Source: Rappler

Imagine how energy is consumed within the 613.9 square kilometres of Metro Manila: All those millions hustling and bustling every single day to offices and back to their homes across city boundaries, burning fuel, hours, and productivity. Only a handful is conscious about how they leave iPhones charging and engines running.

Around one metric ton of carbon emissions is on every Filipino’s shoulders and conscience annually. Electricity, gasoline, kerosene, and diesel are used for daily life by most households, particularly those in highly urbanized areas of the country. Population growth necessitates more energy usage, and the demand continues to soar.

Urban efficiency: How design and mobility affect energy consumption

I mentioned our malls are supersized. So are our skyways, and our ideals. Urban sprawl is eating up our available land faster than we care to notice. One may ask what this has to do with energy.

Using an urban planning perspective, it has everything to do with energy.
This is a basic lesson of using up space. The goal is to make space efficient. In putting homes as close as possible to the school, grocery, church, and park, we are able to walk and lessen emissions by cars. Developers are not burdened with the costs of longer streets, while utility providers spend less on shorter water pipelines and power lines.

Concisely, the more efficient our space and environment, the smaller our energy consumption.

The impact of an urban fabric has much to do with our energy demand and supply. Image Sources: (Left) Pinterest and (Right) Urban Design Studies Unit (University of Strathclyde)

This is why the case of Metro Manila has too great a repercussion from urban inefficiency. Our destinations are too far apart. We take longer trips. We keep overscaling our cities, and we build grander spaces as we move towards global standards. The facades of our mega-sized malls and preference for cement over green spaces speak for themselves.
Life as it is demands more energy for us to function.

Sourcing for the lifeline

The 2016 Philippine Power Situation Report provides a snapshot of how much energy we use up, and how suppliers cater to these needs. So far, what we know is that the residential and industrial sectors keep causing the continued increase of temperature and the need for more cooling equipment.

This just confirms how our growing number of homes create the demand, and how factories, which naturally co-locate to where we are, add to energy usage. Our food, clothing, basic necessities, and utilities become the very climate killers because we require them to be present.

Power sources in the Philippines. Image Source: 2016 Philippine Power Situation Report

Sadly, we continue to fire up coal, depend on oil, and harness natural gases. Our power comes from unsustainable sources. These make up for 76% of the country’s electric supply. Geothermal energy, hydropower, biomass, solar, and wind power put together make up 24%.

Development priorities

One may think why coal and its family of fossil fuels continue to win, and why we haven’t made that stride towards renewable energy sources. This is despite the Renewable Energy Act of 2008, and our hypocritical signatures on the past how many United Nations Conventions, all of which aimed towards sustainable environments.

In fact, we’ve made some steps. 2014 saw us pushing for local energy sources, and the recent years gave stronger voices for more incentives, 650 contracts on renewable energy, and stronger promotions for our feed-in tariff system to incentivize renewable energy.

The pressing matter is how fast and how effective our baby steps carry us towards our future. It is almost a decade since Philippine legislation brought energy to the table. We have now added the Paris Agreement to our targets, and more importantly, our conscience.

But going back, is there genuine consciousness, especially at the neighbourhood—even household—scale, on our country’s energy situation? We have depended on our electric suppliers to make the move. How many of us have made the effort to harness renewable energy in our own ways? Let alone cut down our energy demand?

Thinking about it, how far down is energy in our personal priority list? With a poverty incidence of more than a quarter of all Filipinos, comprised mostly of farmers, fishermen and citizens belonging to the vulnerable demographic, would the common Filipino citizen be concerned about renewable energy over the food on his table? Would we actually campaign for shorter roads and less car usage when in the first place, we look to the government to solve this for us?

No. Installing solar panels would be the last thing on the minds of families who barely put enough together to eat rice. As life ticks by, the carbon footprint aggregates, mostly unchecked by those who contribute to it. Life becomes business as usual. Providers turn to cheaper energy because they have to cater to millions, and to lessen expenses by using the established means for distribution.

Joining the global response for renewable energy

Our cities, and our very selves—we’re all on a race against a carbon time bomb. Think: It’s not just us, it’s our neck on the line, but all of this? This is on us. The Earth’s pressure is upon every country right now to respond and get to the goal of living below 2 degrees Celsius.

Global neighbours have responded with policy: Norway is banning oil, and is banning petrol and diesel car sales. In the financing world, we have introduced climate budgets. Even the smallest product alternatives are being thrown out there by students and entrepreneurs. Just earlier this week I saw an ad for solar paint, which uses hydrogen fuel instead of fossil fuels.

Global and local initiatives to move towards the use of renewable energy spur innovation, policy, and financing strategies. Image Source: UP Materials Science Society, Hybrid Cars, Union of Concerned Scientists.

Sure, all of this is good, and competitive: Education and awareness, campaigns, slogans, all of these introductions and how-to’s for solar equipment, new charging stations, and the like. These efforts are innovative and commendable.

But we have to be strategic. The challenge is to create changes in energy demand and encourage renewable energy supply. The outcome in mind is to get to the lifestyle change of the 15 million in our metropolitan, and how many more millions in our cities, and billions more around the globe.

The strategy is to create synergies from all the efforts, systems from our disconnected networks, and mobility in everyday life. Change the city’s way of life, and move closer to one another. Through design, we achieve energy efficiency by creating nodes and using neighbourhood models.
Through households, we measure our consumption and life impacts. Studies show how four actions create the biggest impact to reduce energy demand and in the bigger picture, lessen the carbon footprint: “eating more plants, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having smaller families.”

Lifestyle change takes a while, but starting small isn’t so bad. After all, the energy problem clearly reflects how we have already been living in the biggest irony of humanity: We destroy so that we can live. Perhaps the planning lessons of mobility, biophilia, smarter systems, and the fact that people drive the life of a city tell us that nothing is really an externality. Everything we do, no matter how small, is connected with something much bigger than what we see, and what we choose to see.

Let me call on you to look at renewable energy beyond new technologies and beyond the pressure of climate agreements. Moving towards it takes our individual efforts to create substantial impacts, and that meaningful path towards saving the only home we have.

Montgomery, C. (2013). Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Philippine Republic Act 9513: An Act Promoting the Development, Utilization and Commercialization of Renewable Energy Resources and for other Purposes, Senate and House of Representatives of the Philippines in Congress, December 16, 2008
Philippine Statistics Authority
Department of Energy 2016 Philippine Power Situation Report
World Economic Forum
Other media

Cover Photo Source:

Originally posted on Rappler X, July 25th 2017, 4:57:51 pm

Do we really want to become a dirty petropolis?

Energy is a big topic that resounds in my head because of sustainability, and cities are magnets and pits of energy rolled into one.

In this article I take a look at how a seemingly simple switchback from fuel standards can become a massive problem for the country, not just because of how it pretends to be a short-term solution, but because there are long-term impacts on the environment. And there are solutions urban leaders can take on, too.

Read the full article here: