Sometimes, it is possible to feel overwhelmed by the environmental crisis facing our planet; to feel dwarfed by the scale of both the problem and the solution. 

The facts are certainly shocking. 

By 2050, global temperatures are expected to be at least 1.5˚C warmer than pre-industrial times, rising to 2-4˚C warmer by the end of this century.[1]  By 2050, London, UK, will feel as hot as Barcelona, Spain at present.  New York, Mexico City and Moscow will be among the major population centers experiencing warmest month temperature increases of at least 4˚C[2], while heat stress, malnutrition and disease are projected to cause some 250,000 extra deaths between 2030 and 2050.[3]

The solutions commonly proposed are correspondingly vast in scale.  Limiting global warming to below 1.5˚C will mean cutting 30 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually by 2030.[4]  The United Nation’s roadmap to a carbon-free future includes 8.2 gigaton emission reductions from the energy sector; 6.7 gigatons from agriculture; 5.4 gigatons from industry, and 4.7 gigatons from transport.  International strategies for decarbonizing industry require wholesale changes to global infrastructure:  Picture huge solar and wind farms supplanting fossil fuel power stations, along with a proliferation of battery factories, eco-fuel facilities and large-scale carbon capture projects.

All of which can sound very remote, even alienating, to the private individual going about their everyday lives.  “I cannot prevent the building of more coal-fired power stations.”  “I do not have the skills to engineer drought-resistant seed strains.”  “Even if I personally do not fly, I cannot stop planes from polluting the skies.”

It is true that achieving net zero is a challenge well beyond the capacity of any one person.  However, expand that impetus to the level of the community – the micro-societies in which we live, work and produce – and valuable contributions to the climate fightback can emerge from the humblest of origins.

Sustainable communities are set to emerge as a key battlefront in the fight against global warming.  Some of the ideas, technologies and policies emerging at grassroots level could prove instrumental in adopting more viable ways of living which, collectively, might help make the challenges of net zero seem less overwhelming, and more achievable.

Energizing the sustainable community concept

How can we live healthier, safer, happier lives, and ensure the same opportunities are available to our descendants in several generations’ time?  One way to promote the virtues of the sustainable community is to focus on local renewable energy initiatives.

Renewable energy has accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s energy generation since 2019, and currently outpaces the growth trajectories of all other energy sources.  That is beneficial not just for the environment but for jobseekers too; decentralized energy solutions are relatively labor-intensive so can help encourage employment.  Renewable energy jobs reached 11 million in 2018 and could quadruple by 2050.[5]

But what might a community energy project look like?

The Danish island of Samsø is sometimes billed as the world’s first 100% renewable energy-powered island.  The average carbon footprint among islanders has fallen from +11 tons of CO2 per head annually to -12 tons (yes that’s a minus sign).[6]  Over the last two decades, the 4,000-strong community has embarked on a series of projects (21 onshore and offshore wind turbines, plus four biomass-fueled district-heating plants) guiding it towards net-zero status.

Ownership of these assets is shared between a combination of private individuals, investor groups, the municipal government and local cooperatives.  To become entirely carbon-free by 2030, the island’s transport and heating sectors will come to depend solely on renewable electricity, while its sea transportation industry will use only electricity or local biogas produced by fermenting organic matter.

Samsø is by its very nature an enclosed habitation.  But can the same principles of a successful sustainable community be introduced in a more urban environment?

It seems so, if the experience of nonprofit energy cooperative Repowering London is any indication.  Repowering London has three aims: Fighting fuel poverty, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating new work opportunities.

One strategy enables individuals and businesses to invest in solar schemes for social housing.  Profits from selling electricity into the grid are then invested back into the community itself.

In just 10 years, Repowering London has installed more than 700 kWp of solar power, avoided some 779 tons of CO2 emissions, raised £768,000 in finance and generated more than £200,000 to spend on community improvements.[7]  To keep skills within the community, Repowering London educates young adults in the financial, legal, marketing and technical aspects of running a community power project.

Elsewhere in the UK, we have seen the steady emergence of co-operative small-scale energy systems, such as the Ouse Valley Energy Services Company (OVESCO) and the Brighton Energy Cooperative.

OVESCO’s projects in East Sussex include 6 MW of solar projects backed by hundreds of local shareholders.[8]  Milestones so far include 15 rooftop arrays and one solar farm; a £1 million fund for home micro-generation; more than 1,000 energy advice phone calls; and cheaper fuel bills for schools, businesses and homeowners.  OVESCO has filed a planning application for a new 17 MW solar farm within the Ouse Valley, enough to power more than 4,000 homes.

The Brighton Energy Cooperative (BEC), a neighboring project in East Sussex, has already raised £3.5 million in community investment for 91 large-scale solar projects around Brighton & Hove.[9]  As a Community Benefit Society, the BEC is controlled by its local stakeholders.  Parties can invest any sum from £3,000 to £100,000 but receive one vote on decision-making matters regardless of investment size.

Businesses in the area benefit from energy bills 30%-40% cheaper than the national average by leasing space for roof panels.  The BEC’s next project is a new 750 kWp solar farm, comprising around 2,000 solar panels at a nearby port. 

These success stories might represent just the tip of the iceberg.  One study suggests that citizen-led financing projects across Europe could fill the €179 billion funding shortfall required to meet the continent’s 2030 climate targets – enough to lift Europe’s renewable energy share to 32% by that date.[10]

As community energy models evolve to become more sophisticated, they are increasingly incorporating battery storage facilities into the mix, too.  This means energy generated during productive periods can be deployed at times when the sun fails to shine or the wind refuses to blow, for dependable round-the-clock power delivery.  It’s a technology that Abdul Latif Jameel Energy is already helping to drive forward through FRV-X, the innovation arm of Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV), its flagship renewable energy business.  FRV-X is developing several pioneering battery storage facilities to ensure round-the-clock power supplies to homes and businesses.  The team’s landmark UK projects at Holes Bay, Dorset and Contego, West Sussex, are already operational, while the UK’s largest battery storage project, at Clay Tye, Essex (99 MW peak power, 198 MWH capacity) is set to go live later in 2023.

FRV-X is also backing another eco funding model fast gaining traction: Green energy crowdinvesting.

One such trailblazer is German-based ‘solar-as-a-service’ provider ecoligo, which uses an innovative funding platform to help unite individual investors with solar scheme opportunities in emerging markets.

FRV-X has invested US$ 10.6 million in ecoligo, which currently operates in 11 countries, including Kenya, Ghana, Costa Rica, Vietnam, the Philippines and Chile. 

Each project ecoligo develops is financed by individual investors via its crowdinvesting platform.  The investment from FRV-X will enable ecoligo to provide solar energy to more customers in emerging markets and accelerate its growth plans.  

So, the solution to powering our businesses and heating our homes in a locally controlled and ecological manner seems to be within our grasp.  But what about feeding the families which form the heartbeat of our communities?  Can agriculture be managed at local level and become truly sustainable, too?

Feeding more than our imaginations

Around the world, a catalog of locally driven agriculture projects are experimenting with different approaches to sustainable food production.  Some are already making a dramatic difference within their communities, while others could become templates for neighborhood-scale farming efforts globally.

Community-focused agriculture, says the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), is “part of the solution for both climate and nature and can help achieve sustainable, equitable, resilient food systems that benefit people and the planet”.[11]

Two of its own projects are bringing food security and community empowerment to deprived regions of Africa.

The first, in Primeiras e Segundas, Mozambique, occupies 2.5 million acres of marine land within the country’s first Environmental Protection Area.  Strategies for improving agricultural resilience include:

  • Village savings and loan associations (particularly targeted at women)
  • No-take zones to allow fisheries to regenerate
  • Replanting of mangroves to protect the coastline
  • Introducing climate-smart seeds for food security.

For other developing regions contemplating a similar model, the results so far are positive: A 25% increase in dietary diversity; more than 70% of fishing boats reporting increased hauls; and a 13% rise in the number of households experiencing year-round food security.

In Tanzania, the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor encompasses an area where several villages share the same water basin.  Local representatives collectively participate in land zoning and resource management decisions. Milestones include:

  • Six locally-owned Village Land Use Plans detailing agriculture zones, plus 672 acres of wetland reserves and 35,000 acres of forest
  • 109 new water sources, 12,000 new trees, 400 new beehives, 38 new wells and eight new fishponds
  • The granting of 2,922 government-issued individual land titles, including 45% to women and 27% to young people.

Communities undergoing an urgent sustainability transition need data-driven support on their journey into a less predictable future.  The Jameel Observatory was founded to help people in low-and-middle-income countries anticipate, and prepare for, future environmental shocks.  It runs two major programs: The Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action and The Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network.

Based at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action is an international partnership which aims to increase resilience and adaptive strategies among pastoral communities.  Early actions and solutions, based on a combination of local knowledge and scientific insight, can help overcome tomorrow’s food insecurity and malnutrition.

Led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network (Jameel Observatory-CREWSnet) merges leading-edge climate forecasting, local/regional data, and socioeconomic analysis to help minimize loss of life, livelihood and property in vulnerable communities.

Grassroots sustainable food projects are emerging at community level in more mature markets, too.  The European Commission’s Horizon scheme is trialing a series of nature-based food strategies across several communities known as ProGIreg (Productive Green Infrastructure for post-industrial Urban Regeneration).[12] 

ProGIreg pilot schemes help turn unused urban land into productive community gardens.

  • In Turin, Italy, the team has converted abandoned areas of Sangone and Piemonte parks into zones for social farming and developed vegetable gardens and micro-gardens at schools and public spaces.
  • In Dortmund, Germany, a self-sustaining 2,000m2 forest has been created by local residents, with an on-site permaculture orchard to enhance soil fertility.
  • In Piraeus, Greece, one of Europe’s most densely populated municipalities, the focus is on urban farms, accessible green corridors, and planting for pollination.

In Zagreb, Croatia, ProGIreg’s urban farm on a former meat processing site serves as a prototype for several sustainable agriculture strategies: Green walls, vertical farming and aquaponics.

Aquaponics uses nutrient-rich water from tanks growing fish and crustaceans to feed hydroponic plants.  By allowing farmers to grow vegetables and seafood simultaneously, it offers communities both financial and nutritional security.  Aquaponics requires zero fertilizers and only limited pesticides and is estimated to produce around 10 times more food per acre than traditional farming.[13]  It uses 80%-95% less water than outdoor farming and requires 75% less energy than mechanized agriculture.  Worldwide the aquaponics industry is growing exponentially, from a US$ 300 million valuation in 2015 to a projected US$ 2.5 billion by 2030.[14],[15]

Green walls, or living walls, are vegetated swathes of the built environment designed to increase biodiversity.  They can sustain a variety of plants and pollinators and accommodate vertical gardens of fruits and herbs.  Green walls also encourage efficient water reuse, with plants capable of dissolving nutrients from lightly polluted waters.

In an increasingly hot future, green walls can make our communities even more sustainable by naturally cooling or warming our buildings.  During summer months external greens walls have been found to reduce surface temperatures by up to 12⁰C.[16]  During winter, conversely, they add a layer of insulation, reducing demand for artificial heating.  Evapotranspiration from foliage can also help counteract the ‘urban heat island’ effect of cities – cauldrons of human activity where temperatures can be 3⁰C to 4⁰C higher than in the countryside.

Indoors, it’s a different but equally exciting story.  For green walls, read vertical farming.  Who needs direct sunshine when renewable energy-powered LED lights can help crops grow at high density within efficient, stacked columns?  Vertical farming can prosper almost anywhere, from buildings to subterranean tunnels to unused shipping containers.  The sector was worth £1.72 billion in 2018, potentially rising to £9.84 billion by 2026, with the USA and Japan proving early adopters.[17]

Vertical farming within communities not only guarantees year-round produce but also eradicates the CO2 burden of long-distance food transportation.  Crops can be harvested up to 15 times every year and, thanks to being grown in a controlled environment, can remain fresh for 13 or 14 days compared to three or four days for conventionally grown produce.[18]

Vertical farms are already establishing a presence in the market.  The world’s largest, ECO1, in Dubai, currently produces more than 900 tons of vegetables annually, from spinach to arugula, using 95% less water than field crops. 

Inside the Bustanica facility developed by Emirates Crop One, a joint venture between Emirates Flight Catering, one of the world’s largest catering operations serving over 100 airlines, and Crop One, an industry leader in technology-driven indoor vertical farming. Photo credit: © Bustanica

Europe’s largest vertical farm is the Nordic Harvest outside Copenhagen, Denmark.  A 7,000 m2 site with plants grown in 14 stacked layers, Nordic Harvest could provide up to 1,000 tons of food annually when fully operational.

Scope for market growth is considerable, with only certain seeds currently able to germinate indoors – usually leafy greens, flowering plants and herbs.  Geneticists are currently expanding this repertoire of crops to include fruit and root, pod and seed vegetables.  German biotech firm Bayer and investment firm Temasek launched start-up Unfold in 2020, funding the development of new edible seed varieties bred specifically for indoor farms.[19]

We may, in fact, be moving away from the idea of neighborhoods altogether towards agrihoods – ‘master-planned housing communities with working farms as their focus’.[20]  Typically, agrihoods combine green spaces, orchards, greenhouses, community kitchens, and homes equipped with solar panels and composting facilities.

There are already around 150 agrihoods in suburban areas of the USA, and their numbers are growing all the time.[21]  One seven-acre farm in Detroit grows more than 30 different fruits, vegetables and herbs for sale at local markets.  It attracts 40 to 50 volunteers weekly in summer.[22]

From a global perspective, we see competing approaches to urban farming – from basic food security projects in the developing world, to fashionable agrihoods in mature markets.  Together, they will help establish best practice principles as the notion of ‘sustainable communities’ gains traction worldwide.

However, sustainable practices will only be adopted if participation occurs at every level of society, from next-door neighbors to top-tier government.

When people power meets potent policy

As we see, locally driven endeavor can keep the lights burning and help feed a population.  But creating a truly sustainable community requires a more holistic approach, so grassroots initiatives are expanding to include far-sighted conservation and refurbishment strategies.

Some communities are uniting for mass planting trees projects, or organized clean-ups of rivers and streams.  Elsewhere, skilled teams of volunteers are swooping in to modernize energy efficiency and insulation at public buildings.

But the notion of sustainable communities can also encompass behavioral activism initiatives such as Transition Streets/Towns and Carbon Rationing Action Groups (CRAGs).

Transition Streets/Towns encourage greener lifestyles at a hyperlocal level, with neighbors working together to reduce energy consumption and waste or collaborating on car share schemes to cut their carbon footprint.  One early scheme in Devon, UK, saw members reduce their carbon emissions by 1.2 tons per home and save around £570 a year on household bills.[23]

CRAGs, predominantly found in the USA and UK, are informal groups of environmentally minded individuals and organizations who agree an annual per capita CO2 limit, then pay a financial penalty for any emissions generated beyond that cap.

Government support is, of course, integral for any impactful move towards sustainable communities.  The journey of the UK’s feed-in tariff (FIT) scheme, whereby homes and businesses were paid for supplying energy from small-scale renewables into the grid, illustrates the importance of state policies.

The UK government introduced the FIT in 2010 and within five years some 150 to 200 community energy organizations owned solar, wind, hydro and biomass equipment, duly feeding their excess energy into the grid.  But the rise of FITs rise came to an abrupt halt in 2015 when the government cut support for small-scale renewable projects, and by 2017 the number of new community energy groups created annually fell from around 30 to just one.

Enthusiasm for such grassroots initiatives remains high, yet political support is evidently pivotal.  One recent poll found a commanding 82% of respondents believed the government should do more to help local communities generate their own energy.  Some 69% argued the government should offer tax relief benefits to anyone progressive enough to invest in community energy schemes.[24]

State support can help catapult sustainable communities from niche concept to mass movement.  So, if we can accept the value of a Sustainable Community, why not enlarge the hypothesis to a sustainable city?

Concept of ‘community’ has no limits on size

What about a city where everything one needs is within a short walk, cycle or e-scooter ride, saving on wasteful transportation emissions?  That is the vision of the 15 Minute City (FMC), in which all life’s essentials (work, shops, schools, healthcare and leisure) are accessible within a quarter-of-an-hour micro-journey.

These ‘complete communities’ require a multi-pronged approach, with buy-in from transportation planners, urban designers, and policymakers.  They also benefit from the cooperation of businesses, with work-from-home models popularized during the COVID-19 pandemic enabled by the widespread rollout of superfast broadband connections.

The idea has enjoyed a popularity boost since 2020, when the mayor of Paris proposed adopting FMC principles in the French capital.  FMCs are now rising in prominence across multiple continents. In China, FMC projects are under way in Shanghai, Baoding and Guangzhou; in Israel, Tel Aviv; in Italy, the Sardinian community of Cagliari; in the USA, Portland, Oregon; in South America, Bogotá, Colombia; and in Australia, the Victorian capital Melbourne.

Rather than retro-fitting a city to accommodate eco principles, what about designing a sustainable community from the ground up?

That is the driving force behind Neom, the sustainable Smart City currently under development in northwestern Saudi Arabia.  The 26,500 km2 city will feature multiple regions including a floating industrial complex, global trade hub and tourist resorts – powered exclusively by renewable energy.

The US$ 500+ billion project is funded by the Saudi Arabian state sovereign wealth fund and once operational should achieve self-sufficiency.  Neom, which has a targeted completion date of 2039, will feature 16,000 acres of agricultural fields dedicated to high-yield genetically-engineered crops.  Contracts have been awarded for the construction of a 2,930 MW solar power plant, a 1,370 MW windfarm, a 400 MW battery energy storage system, and a power transmission network of around 190km.

Neom, at 33 times the size of New York City, could ultimately house a population of some nine million people.  And it is of course people, along with their skills and ambitions, who will drive the Sustainable Community vision to greater heights.

We are sociable animals, sharing a common fate

We would be short-sighted to neglect the potential of the ‘community’ when tackling the existential problem of sustainability – particularly since more of us than ever before are set to experience the challenges of urban living in the coming years.

Presently, some 2 billion people live in urban environments.[25]  Half of those fall within areas designated ‘urban slums’ – yet still our instinct remains to cluster together, with urban populations set to double to 4 billion over the next two decades.

Our communities, by thinking globally and acting locally, could prove pivotal to achieving the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.  Targets include the eradication of hunger and poverty, plus the provision of potable water, sanitation and green energy for all.[26]

SDG 11 in particular aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.  It acknowledges the quality of life disparity that exists within cities, most starkly felt by the 1 billion urban poor living in ‘informal settlements’ and competing for overstretched services, infrastructure, jobs, land, and affordable housing.

Targets of SDG 11 include access to safe, affordable and sustainable transport systems for all’; reducing the number of deaths and the economic losses caused by disasters; and cutting the per capita environmental impact of cities, especially air quality and waste.

The UN’s report last year on progress towards its SDGs revealed mixed progress.[27]

  • Air quality is now being monitored in a record number of cities (more than 6,000 across 117 countries) but remains substandard worldwide. Despite a decline in airborne particulates overall, 99% of the world’s urban dwellers still live in areas exceeding new WHO guidelines on air quality of <5 micrograms per cubic meter.  People in developing countries remain disproportionately affected, accounting for 91% of the 4.2 million premature deaths from air quality.
  • Around two-thirds of countries now have local disaster risk reduction strategies, almost double the number in 2015. Countries have begun to align disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation at local level, but a multi-hazard approach to resilience-building is still deemed necessary given the cascading nature of risk.
  • As of 2020, only about 37% of urban areas are served by public transport, and by 2030 the number of cars on the road is likely to double from 2015 levels. Governments, the report notes, still face a significant challenge to increase the availability of safe, reliable, and efficient public transport systems.
  • If left uncollected or unprocessed, urban refuse can become a hive of disease and greenhouse gas emissions. In 2022 an average of 82% of waste globally was being collected, with more than half being managed in controlled facilities.  Regions in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania achieved an average collection rate of less than 60%, showing major investment is still needed in waste management infrastructure.

The private sector can lead the march towards a future-proofed global society anchored by a network of sustainable communities.  Private capital is patient capital, its timetables operating independently from political cycles and external shareholder pressure for the next quarter’s returns.

At Abdul Latif Jameel, we aim to play our part in this sustainability transition.

Almar Water Solutions, part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy and Environmental Services, produces water for human and industrial use via cutting-edge desalination and wastewater treatment and recycling plants, including the Shuqaiq 3 plant in Saudi Arabia, one of the largest desalination plants in the Middle East.  While the Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), co-founded by Community Jameel and MIT in 2014, researches techniques for nourishing and sustaining an ever-growing global population. 

Fady Jameel
Fady Jameel
Deputy President & Vice Chairman,
Abdul Latif Jameel

Abdul Latif Jameel is also contributing to the development of more sustainable communities by broadening access to green energy.  In addition to FRV-X’s pioneering battery storage projects, FRV is working to ensure affordable clean energy for all, with a growing portfolio of solar, wind, energy storage and hybrid energy projects throughout the Middle East, Australia, Europe and Latin America.

“Building communities fit for the 21st Century means building communities that are durable and self-sustaining,” says Fady Jameel, Deputy President & Vice Chairman of Abdul Latif Jameel.

“With the power of our private capital, and the limitless innovation of our international collaborators, we are helping to ensure the pioneering concept of sustainable communities makes the leap from drawing board to neighborhood.

“Within sustainable communities we can enjoy our lives safe in the knowledge that our homes will be heated, our families fed, and our businesses powered – and that those same privileges will be available to future generations who inherit the planet we leave behind.”