When one speaks of smart cities one cannot speak of it without deeply discussing sustainability aspects of city living. As our cities become more rapidly urbanised many elements of the city becomes less sustainable from our consumption behaviours to our construction practices. An increased population in cities will inevitably increase the amount of people who will contribute to the carbon footprint, navigating to the future we require for city to be more sustainable. It’s no secret that cities are the main contributors to the world’s carbon footprint, but to contextualise the gravity of it, a study from the UN shows that while cities only consists of 2% of the world’s landmass it accounts for a staggering 70% of the world’s GHG emission.
To address the issue, we invited none other than Matthias Gelber, the Green Man to talk about sustainability within smart cities. A special shout out to our partners at MiGHT for generously offering the space for us to have this discussion.
Sustainable Cities Starts with Me
There were many fascinating points made by Matthias during the chat, the one that was most poignant to me was when he said “Sustainable cities starts with me”. Often when we speak about action plans related to sustainability, the conversation revolves around macro-level strategies. We seldom think about the collective impact of our actions on the environment. Within minutes of chatting with Matthias, it is very obvious that this ideology is a very core part of his ethos and it translates in his daily live.
Recently, Matthias wrote a book titled “Green Man’s Guide to Green Living and Working”, in producing this book Matthias was meticulous to ensure that this is not just a book about being green, but the book itself should live up to the standards that it preaches. It is made from 100% recycled paper and printed with vegetable ink by a carbon neutral press which, according to Matthias, there’s only two in Malaysia. He even took the extra step in calculating the precise carbon footprint of the book from writing to editing, to binding. For most, this is where they call it a day, but for Matthias this simply will not suffice, even the number of hours spent in air-conditioning and the type of lighting used was incorporated into the calculation of the total CO2 emission. In totality, Matthias said that the book came up to 330 grammes of CO2 emission, which he then bought carbon credits to offset its environmental impact.
Beyond that, Matthias is also a strong proponent of ethical investment, he shared that as a private individual. He has a green pension system in which he only invest in portfolios that heals the planet, instead of damaging it. One such investment is into an eco-friendly, bio-diverse forest plantation. It is important to him that he does not invest into something that further exacerbates negative environmental impacts
“ If your granddaughter were to ask you one day, whether your business has healed or damaged the planet, what would your answer be?”
-Matthias Gelber, Green Man
While all these seem very aspirational, there are currently 29.72 million people living in Malaysia according to World Bank, suppose if more than half of that figure go about there business and daily life in a sustainable fashion imagine the positive impact Malaysia will leave to the environment.
“We’ve started the Negawatt Revolution , too often we focus on how many megawatts and gigawatts can we add to the supply, but the biggest opportunity for the environment and smart cities is the efficiency of energy consumption”
-Matthias Gelber, Green Man
There are a plethora of technologies out there in the market to help us to be more efficient with energy consumption which are all substantially useful in furthering the cause, however Matthias opined that the first step to that should always be behavioural change, he then further elaborated that energy you save through behavioural change costs us virtually nothing. Whereas with technology you’ll always have to assess the upfront cost versus the return of investment and the payback period. The simplest way for consumers to make a difference is in in their consumption pattern. Matthias believes that through our consumption patterns and demands, we can shape property developers to develop more energy efficient buildings. He also added that, buildings can be designed to be as efficient as possible but if the inhabitants are unsustainable it makes whatever design principles put in place to be moot.
That is not to say that Matthias is not a proponent for technology, when he did a Negawatt Revolution , he shared a case study of one of the real time test he did using Reneon Technologies’ platform. In that house he found that the bill was around RM 700 per month. Using the platform the inhabitants of the house was able to identify in a very visual way where the bulk of the consumption is coming from. Having data visualised can be a very powerful tool to help citizen’s to contextualise their consumption patterns and shape their behaviour accordingly. In light of that, we’ve recently found out that TNB has launched a great initiative which provides citizens with insights of their energy bills that dates back several years, compare their usage with neighbours with similar homes, and offer recommendations on how to save on their energy bill. I believe that this will go a long way in making Malaysian’s more sustainable in the way they go about consuming energy.
Ökologische Steuerreform (Ecological Tax Reform)
Whether we like it or not, economics often have the biggest impact in shaping the behaviour of the masses. Cheap coal price according to Matthias is one of the key drivers behind Malaysia’s reliance on coal power fire plants, but he believes that in the long run Malaysia’s reliance on this commodity may hurt Malaysia will become reliant on a commodity in which the pricing is beyond the control of the Malaysian government. He also noted the irony that because of the low energy prices in Malaysia that Malaysia is one the preferred hubs for solar manufacturing and that the very fact that electricity is cheap it has to some extent hindered investments into energy efficiency as it will take Malaysia 6-7 years to recover its investments in comparison to Philippines who will take 3 years where electricity prices are higher.
Matthias believes that the price of resources should reflect the true environmental costs and subsidies into water and energy is simply not an efficient fiscal policy. Low electricity and water costs, removes a big part of the consumers motivation and can often lead to overconsumption which then leads to the government paying more subsidies, which at the end of the day these inefficiency is still paid by the taxpayers.
As a case study, Matthias pointed out that during the earlier days when the German government introduced the Ökologische Steuerreform (Ecological Tax Reform) the industries were up in arms claiming that this negatively impact their businesses in a significant way. However, the contrary is true today, this policy paved the way for Germany to become a leader in green technology and it has largely benefited from the Ökologische Steuerreform. The government then reinvested the savings from the subsidies into education, investment which Matthias said enabled a “kampung boy” like himself to become a productive member of society. He then jokingly said that the investment is now enjoyed by Malaysia.
“We had a movement where people were telling the politicians, are you green if you’re not green we will not vote you anymore and that’s how we grew up”
-Matthias Gelber, Green Man
As much as government policy shapes us, we too shape government policies. Politicians fear losing their voter base if they remove subsidies. Matthias believes that in order for more sustainable policies to emerge, the public needs to be more active in getting the voice heard, by doing so the politicians will focus on more sustainable actions.
We had a pretty fruitful, discussion and we were really thankful that Matthias, despite his busy schedule came all the way down to Cyberjaya right after his conference presentation at Malacca and everyone for participating in this very important discussion. This is 2nd Smart Cities Coffee Chat that we have hosted following the session with Dr.Renato.
We’re hoping to run these community events once every month, these events are a non-profit initiative of Knowledge Group to spark conversations around the area of Smart Cities – conversations which I hope that will serve as a catalyst to action and it’ll lead up to our main annual Smart Cities Asia Conference & Exhibition where we’ll be presenting our findings on how to improve the city to the local councils, central governments and industry players.
Stay updated on our latest community gatherings through our Facebook Group here https://www.facebook.com/groups/smartcitieskl/
About the Author
Vincent Fong is the General Manager of Knowledge Group and a self-proclaimed pundit of Smart Cities