The city of tomorrow, circular and with zero-emissions

Published on Tuesday, 5 October 2021

As the famous Greek poet Simonides wrote, “the city is the teacher of the man.” This quote is 25 centuries old, but it has never been as relevant as it is today. Because cities have a lot to teach us, and there has never been a better time for humanity to put those lessons into practice.

And the future of cities was in fact the theme of the convention on “Circular Cities: Impacts on decarbonization and beyond.” The event took place in our Milan headquarters on October 1, during the week when the city was also hosting Pre-COP 26, the preparatory meeting for the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The fourth edition of the study on circular cities prepared by our Group in collaboration with Arup was also presented during the event.

“Nowadays, cities have the responsibility of guiding the energy transition, and they cannot shirk it,” said our Chairman Michele Crisostomo in his opening remarks. The data clearly explains why: cities are responsible for 70% of global CO2 emissions, they consume 60% of the world’ resources, and they produce half of its waste. According to the United Nations’ projections, by 2050 seven-tenths of the global population will live in urban areas, which will keep increasing in size and, unless we act immediately, will become unlivable. If, on the one hand, cities are primarily responsible for the environmental problem, on the other, they are also the best laboratory for testing new solutions based on circularity that can then be scaled up to the world. Nowadays, many of these solutions (some of which have already been implemented in cities like Bogotà, Glasgow, Genoa, and Milan, which were selected as case studies for our paper) fall under one single concept: circularity.

“Redesigning cities to make them more sustainable, livable, and resilient will be crucial for everyone's quality of life, as well as for both global and local environmental sustainability.”

– Michele Crisostomo, Chairman of Enel

In a circular city, life, activities, and services are based on the same circular economy principles: a system in which waste is reduced to a minimum, along with trash, energy dispersion, and emissions; a system that acknowledges that raw materials are finite resources and should therefore be recycled as much as possible, while also extending the service life of products. This generates a mechanism (which is characteristic of nature) that is capable of regenerating itself and also causes the least impact possible on the environment. If a city is conceived in this way, it can turn into a powerful accelerator of decarbonization and electrification processes, which are fundamental for curbing the planet’s average temperature increase.

But there is more: a circular city ensures a higher quality of life for its inhabitants because it includes well-being and social equality among its guiding principles. Its design rests upon the column of sustainability and aims for a healthy environment, cleaner air, more accessible services (especially for the most vulnerable groups), support and response mechanisms that are more resilient to emergencies like the increasingly extreme weather events or the recent pandemic.

“Many circular economy actions and solutions have a local dimension and cities can implement them. This is why it’s crucial to measure, monitor, and promote their contribution so that we can make the most of the levers at their disposal.”

– Luca Meini, Head of Circular Economy for the Enel Group

And so the best investment that humanity can make for itself is the city of the future: this is the message that was emphatically sent by the speakers at the convention in Milan. And it is an investment that we all have to make together, with public-private initiatives involving as many sectors as possible, from finance to industry, from politics to environmentalism, all the way to research. “We already have the tools and the technologies,” said Crisostomo, “and they can be put to use immediately.” The Chairman cited as an example the Circular City Index, which was recently launched by Enel X and is available for free to all Italian municipalities that would like to measure the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of circularity through Open Data. Crisostomo explained how this tool can “monitor the main circularity parameters of a city: from how much trash is recycled and how to the environmental impact of mobility, from the rate of digitalization to energy efficiency.” This way, public administrative bodies can act in a targeted and more efficient way to improve the parameters that are still far from ideal.

Culture and governance,” concluded Crisostomo, “are fundamental: on the one hand, we need to increase people’s awareness of the virtuous conduct they should adopt; on the other, we have to streamline the bureaucratic processes that often limit local administrators’ capacity for action. So we should start rethinking and redesigning cities with a long-term perspective.”

Following the circular model is the only way cities can achieve truly sustainable development in order to protect our planet’s future.

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