Earth has a current population of 7.1 billion; and births outnumber deaths by three to one. The human population will rise to 10 billion by the year 2050, and 75% of us will live in cities. This means the population of our cities will double in a few decades.
To accommodate this, cities must adapt and grow, or smaller towns will increase in size that demands a change in economic centres and infrastructure (or, more likely, a mix of the two). The infrastructure required to accommodate this growth must be encouraged by our governments today – but what should these policies be?
Our behaviour will have to change. Our evolution as a race has developed slowly over many centuries. The year 2050 is only a few decades away. The level of change required over such a short period demands that we must now think about how we are living, what resources we are using and, most importantly, our everyday habits.
Today we expect that when we plug in an appliance – whether it is a smartphone or kettle – power is readily available. Most of us don’t question where this comes from or how long it’s likely to last. In order to provide this power the most developed countries rely on importing a large percentage of fossil fuels. Combine this pollution-heavy energy creation with our consumer lifestyle and we have a power time bomb on our hands.
With the average energy use in developed countries at least doubling the global average (sometimes up to six times higher) the sheer scale of the resources needed requires a new set of solutions. Take solar energy – in 2002, it was calculated that the Earth received as much energy from the Sun in one hour than our entire energy use in a single year.
Why do we face a future energy crisis? We have developed our energy strategy on the use of fossil fuels rather than harnessing the natural energy around us. But there are challenges here. The energy doesn’t fall where we need it, nor does it occur at the times we require it. So a more diverse set of solutions needs to be developed. That is where our built environment can help.
Before we solve the energy needs we should first correct our behaviour, as this will have the most dramatic impact in solving the issue. To do this we need to link the value of energy to our use of it. We will then understand the relationship between our actions and the cost of production. When we ride a bicycle, the speed we travel is directly proportional to the effort we put into the pedals. If we were to understand the relationship between creating energy and how much we use to live – just like we know how much energy we need to pedal – we would behave in a different manner.
The way to achieve this is to decentralise the power plants, create it locally, more densely and at a smaller scale, and make us all part of its creation. This is already happening – in Denmark, half of the power is produced in local plants, and in the Netherlands the figure is 40%.
Developing countries have also embraced the idea of decentralised energy creation as a matter of need, not choice. Kenya has the more photovoltaic cells per capita than any other country (their energy use per capita, meanwhile, is a quarter of the global average). This level of technology use is out of sync with their development but demonstrates a very clear relationship between the individual and their understanding of their own power use.