Jeremy Bentham, Shell’s head of Scenarios
Jeremy Bentham, Shell’s head of Scenarios

You have said that the hundred years to 2050 will be known as the century of the city. Why is the rise of the city so inevitable?

When a population doubles, productivity and creativity more than double, they can increase by as much as 115% or more.

That’s partly because cities allow people to invest in common resources, such as energy and sanitation systems. But also because working together gives people an advantage, whether they are linked by personal or business relationships. That advantage allows the group to build up surplus capital and invest in education and amenities. That, in turn, attracts more money and more people, creating a virtuous circle.

Of course, there are factors that can work against cities. If municipalities fail to address the lack of sanitation, or the fact that criminals can also be more productive in bigger groups, you don’t have an attractive city.

Why is the way cities develop so important right now?

Cities will make a massive difference to the health of the planet. Today, cities use around two-thirds of the world’s energy. By 2040, we can expect that figure to rise to 80%.

The Paris agreement on climate change set a clear goal of reaching net-zero emissions in the second half of this century. That means that any emissions still being produced are offset, or captured and stored underground.

But the world is unlikely to achieve net-zero emissions without having compact cities with efficient energy management.

It will take vision and management to stop cities spreading outwards. Today, many of the cities considered attractive are relatively sprawling because they have land available. But these models are not necessarily good from an energy efficiency and emissions point of view. People generally don’t like to get too close to each other. So the world needs to find a way of making compact cities desirable places to live.

Which cities have managed to be both compact and attractive?

I’m a great fan of Singapore. I first went there in 1985 and have seen the second half of its incredible transformation from a place set in a swamp in the late 1950s into one of the world’s most vibrant cities.

Singapore today enjoys integrated infrastructure, water management and waste management and incredible public transport: two-thirds of commuter trips are made on public transport, for example.

The city has regular urban planning exercises which are becoming more flexible to take into account the changing needs of its growing population. In particular, Singapore is reclaiming and developing more land. The striking Gardens by the Bay nature park, for example, sits on reclaimed land in central Singapore, and helps to make this compact city a more attractive place to live.

The government is also extending its investments in education in a bid to encourage and attract more creative people and thinking. The first School of the Arts is trying to build beyond Singapore’s traditional focus on science, technology and maths to develop people who can flourish and enrich society in a broader sense.

How can other compact cities become better places to live?

Central London is relatively compact and has benefited from flexible planning. Targets on emissions reductions in 1990 set the direction and led to steps such as the congestion charge to reduce traffic in the centre. The city is investing in new cycle lanes which will improve air quality and so also improve health and reduce emissions and congestion.

You only have to look to the Netherlands to see that cycling can become part of daily life. There, around 30% of all journeys are by bike, and 60% of people in Amsterdam cycle every day.

Rotterdam has incredible water management systems, as well as ambitious targets to reduce emissions. As part of this project, Shell has agreed to take residual heat from our Pernis refinery in Rotterdam so that it can be used by the municipality to heat some 16,000 households in the city.

There are others steps cities can take to reduce emissions such as encouraging the use of smaller electric or hydrogen-powered cars. These electric and hydrogen-powered cars could account for around 80% of passenger traffic over the coming decades with the right government policies, according to our latest estimates.

The latest Scenarios report, “A Better Life With A Healthy Planet”, traces possible pathways to net-zero emissions. What are some of the other areas this reports highlights where cities can reduce emissions?

Today, the built environment is responsible for nearly one-third of global energy consumption and is the reason for a similar proportion of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions either directly or more significantly through electricity demand. House builders in many developed countries can already build net-zero low-rise homes that generate as much energy as they draw from the grid.

They can do this through measures such as insulation, triple glazing, electric boilers, heat pumps and rooftop solar panels. For high-rise buildings, or in densely populated cities, municipalities may choose to install district heating networks that pipe recycled or waste heat from nearby industrial facilities, as Rotterdam is doing.

What other ways could energy in cities change in the years ahead?

As populations grow and people become more prosperous, we can expect greater energy consumption as well as greater emphasis on efficiency and reducing emissions.  This will apply not just to the built environment but also to transport, power generation, and industry.

Efficiency standards for individual buildings will be enhanced and there will be greater electrification of cooking, heating and cooling. In many places, improved city planning and zoning practices will enhance efficiency through the development of compact cities, better provision of public transport, and the ability to travel by cycle, light-duty electric vehicles or gas-powered transport.

Power generation may become more resilient by combining solar or wind with natural gas to offset intermittency. But developments will proceed at different times in different places, shaped by technological possibilities. 

Greater electrification will steadily enable greater utilisation of solar and wind energy, but where high temperatures or dense energy storage are required – such as in many industrial processes or long-distance heavy-duty transport – you will continue to see the use of hydrocarbon fuels supplemented with biofuels.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing developing cities?

The Scenarios team has worked in detail with three emerging Asian cities: Surat in India, Marikina in the Philippines and Jakarta in Indonesia. We partnered with local authorities to help them explore new approaches to urban development, and recommended steps to help make these cities more resilient. Each city has different challenges. One of the biggest challenges facing Marikina City, for instance, is flooding in other parts of Metro Manila which cuts off power and damages industry, making investing in Marikina City less attractive.

Surat suffers from poor air and water quality. This is especially important because the textile industry in Surat needs clean, high-quality threads that depend on clean air and water. In Jakarta, the city’s ability to invest in basic infrastructure such as sanitation and power is outstripped by population growth, leading to the development of slums.

How can these cities tackle such challenges?

From an energy standpoint, the Scenarios team found a common theme: if these three cities were to develop a hybrid gas and solar-powered micro-grid, whether just electric power, or combined heat and power, it could help make them more resilient by providing reliable power with lower emissions.

Which city would you most like to live in?

I’ve chosen The Hague in the Netherlands as the city that I plan to settle in. There are personal reasons for that choice. I’ve lived in the city a long time and have built up many relationships there. But it’s also a compact city with great amenities, well-tended parks and great public transport. 


Jeremy Bentham spoke to Jo Wrighton

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