Interview with Alexei Zakharov, UNDP/GEF project advisor on Sustainable Cities

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International Consultant / Senior Technical Advisor for the “Sustainable Cities in Turkmenistan: Integrated Green Urban Development in Ashgabat and Awaza” project

 

UNDP: What is a sustainable city? Is there an ideal example?

Mr. Zakharov: An ideal sustainable city is the one that has zero carbon emission footprint on the Planet’s wellbeing. That means the city generates energy for its needs from renewable sources, such as hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass, and deposits zero non-recyclable waste into the environment.

The challenges of achieving this status are so enormous that no city we know of has achieved that status yet. A blueprint for the model that we could learn from is the district of Abu-Dhabi called Maasdar City (https://masdar.ae). It’s home to the regional hubs of such equipment and automation software giants as Honeywell and to other technology companies that want to position themselves as leaders in technology innovation.

Maasdar’s buildings have to be LEDs-certified (i.e. they consume several times less energy for their needs than a similar building in Turkmenistan). The district’s energy needs are fully met with renewable-only technologies (solar PVs with installed capacity of 11 MW). Note that – unlike in some fuel-poor nations, hydrocarbons are abundant in Abu-Dhabi (it pumps 90% of all oil in UAE) and cheap. The city’s only commuter system is an autonomous driving electric bus; its waste is sent to a nearby waste-to-energy facility in the UAE; it’s water is supplied from the most energy efficient reverse osmosis desalination plant fed by solar PVs.

However, such technological advancement is for now only possible for the privileged 40,000-50,000 residents. The resulting cost of living is the highest in the world. The city offers zero corporate tax rate to offset the cost of building these premises and relocating highly paid staff to Maasdar, but there’s no doubt that achieving this goal for established cities with lots of legacy infrastructure will remain a distant target for decades ahead.

About 80% of the world’s population will live in cities in 2050, yet Maasdar-type success will remain a distant target rather than a reality for an overwhelming majority of world cities.

 

UNDP: What can we do in already existing cities?

Mr. Zakharov: Smaller steps are possible. In 1972, 95% of all energy needs of Denmark (which is, population-wise, a country of the size of Turkmenistan) were covered by fossil fuel. Thanks to a concerted policy of the past 40 years, the city is now firmly on a path to switching to 100% renewable energy (RE) sources by 2050. Norway already powers 99% of households from RE sources.

All this comes at a cost. In Denmark, the cost of energy to households is the highest in the world and growing (with 35 to 50% of that cost being a fossil-fuel energy tax collected to build the national RE generation capacity). The cost of owning a car is the highest too: the new car tax in Denmark is 200% of the selling cost. Electric vehicles (EVs) have until recently been exempt from this tax, and this made Denmark the number 2 EU EV market (after Norway).

These policies and tax regimes didn’t emerge overnight – it took several decades. However, the population knew the change was imminent. Today, most support these policies because they want their grand-grand children to enjoy the planet we know of today.

These issues are well-known in Central Asia where the Aral Sea has ceased to exist over the past 60 years due to irresponsible agricultural policies in Soviet Union. So even a middle-income GDP-per-capita country like Turkmenistan has to have a sustainability Roadmap. The goal is to fight soil erosion which results in the loss of jobs in the agricultural sector and water shortages.

Couple of smaller intermediate steps are possible, such as introducing an all-LED street lighting standard, a phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, an automated time-of-the-day electric metering requirement (for consumers and industry alike), introduction of mandatory automated water and heat-metering.

More ambitious programme could include a policy of gradual increase in the cost of energy to the population (to enable the switch from old technology incandescent light bulbs, which waste more than 90% of energy, to LEDs (which only waste about 7% of energy). The country planners have to switch to LED-based street lighting across the country in all subsequent rounds of modernization. The next generation of desalination plants may be required to be only fed by RE sources, green tariff shall be introduced to stimulate installation of RE technologies in remote off-the-grid locations for farmers and border guard units.

Later, the policy shall move to stimulate new energy generation from RE sources-only, while all the country-gas could be exported boosting revenue. It’s not unimaginable that new businesses will be attracted with zero-tax rates and hi-tech industrial innovation and software outsourcing will emerge. As a result, the country may want to expand the industrial practices and invest much more in education to support the stable supply of cadres to these hubs.

 

UNDP: What role does the population and local authorities play in developing sustainable cities in Turkmenistan?

Mr. Zakharov: The population has to embrace new modes of transportation (cycling to study, work or shopping areas, using (e)scooters) while the authorities will have to make that change safe and seamless (more convenient bus routes and frequency responsive to the pulse of the city and traffic flow directions). Powerful yet inefficient cars won’t be available for the public due to potential changes in new and used-car import regimes (lowering maximum engine capacity while increasing fuel efficiency thresholds). However, that unavailability of the old car types won’t affect the cost of vehicles, if only positively.

The cost of replacing the light bulb will increase but that cost will be a one-time investment only, given the fact that LEDs work for 5 and more years uninterruptedly in the housing environment. Also, sorting household waste shall come with no second thought while the upgrade of the collection and sorting infrastructure shall come along, hand in hand with the public awareness campaign.

 

UNDP: How much infrastructural change should we expect in Ashgabat and Avaza to turn these two areas into sustainable cities?

Mr. Zakharov: We plan to finalize new bus routes including installation of electronic time-tables on bus stops, smart-phone apps with automatic route updates and bus and bicycle transfer route planners by the end of the project. However, such changes as LED retrofits of all the street lighting stock will take longer if the public funding won’t be forthcoming. New hotels built under passive-haus construction norms (to be introduced) may come on line quickly though as should solar PV-powered lighting and public EV taxi fleet.

 

UNDP: Can you name top 3 tangible results that you expect the project to achieve in 5 years?

Mr. Zakharov:

1.       The first result will be seen in the field of more sustainable transport infrastructure: bus-routes will be rerouted in Ashgabat, dedicated and safe bicycle routes with public bike-parking and renting infrastructure will be installed in the capital, and e-vehicle charging stations will be installed in Avaza along with several EV taxi vehicles.

2.       The other result will be a gradual and visible switch to LED lights across Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi as well as on the store shelves (no more incandescent light bulbs being sold).

3.       And last but not least, separate waste collection will become a reality in the capital. The exact extent of that change will depend on the availability of financing (both public and private) of the required sorting and recycling infrastructure.

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