It’s a simple truth. The world around us is always changing. Today, that change comes in the form of competing trends. As the world’s population grows and the global middle class expands, we see a move from rural and suburban living back to cities. From Jakarta to Chicago, urbanization is a particularly strong trend. Nowhere is it more prevalent than China, home to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and, in total, a quarter of the world’s 100 largest cities. 

Our global economy needs reliable, clean energy to continue growing and improving lives. What we need are practical solutions that can be implemented immediately.

In fact, Chinese cities alone will contribute nearly 40 percent of global growth in residential and commercial floor space demand by 2025.  But it’s not just China. In India, the population today will move from 30 percent urban today to nearly 80 percent urban in the next five decades. Cities like Kolkata, Lagos and Rio de Janeiro are breeding grounds for astonishing growth.  These “megacities” in emerging markets all face challenges in areas of transportation, pollution, connectivity and availability of health care.

Our global economy needs reliable, clean energy to continue growing and improving lives. What we need are practical solutions that can be implemented immediately.

At the same time that people are migrating to be physically much closer together, the systems that support our populations are becoming more fragmented. From online shopping sites such as Amazon.com to distributed rooftop solar panels in the energy industry, businesses are experiencing their own fragmentations and creative disruptions. Decision making is shifting to be increasingly spread throughout our economy, rather than consolidated.  This will require the right technology and solutions to support the changes in cities.

With so much change, one constant remains: our global economy needs reliable, clean energy to continue growing and improving lives. What we need are practical solutions that can be implemented immediately. Renewables such as wind and solar are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, but the reality is that widespread adoption and implementation of other emerging clean energy technologies are still years away and will require policy mandates from all levels of government to emerge into the mainstream.

Simply producing more fossil-based power isn't a viable option; it is too expensive and polluting. Fortunately, this is the gap that energy efficiency can help close in our global energy mix. The fact is, energy efficiency remains the lowest cost and cleanest energy source. 

It’s a message discussed with business leaders and policy makers at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Alex Molinaroli, CEO of Johnson Controls, explained that technology advances are driving down the costs of renewable and other clean energy technologies. In fact, the cost of solar PV, wind and storage energy are decreasingly rapidly with distributed generation systems achieving cost parity with traditional fossil fuel-based energy generation in many locations. 

The results are clear, investment in energy efficiency is a “no-regrets” strategy that reduces the need for additional energy supply capacity, reduces carbon emissions, reduces consumer costs, creates jobs and improves comfort.

As more people move to urban centers, either for the first time as in China, or as part of the re-urbanization underway in major urban areas of the United States and elsewhere, it is increasingly important to meet increased population density and energy demands with realistic, everyday solutions that improve energy efficiency. Those solutions include things that can be implemented today: Advanced battery technologies in vehicles, automated and efficient smart systems that integrate technology systems in buildings and street lighting, district energy systems and micro grids in communities. At the local policy level, building codes and financial incentives can be leveraged to encourage greater efficiency in both new and existing buildings.

Energy efficiency is a megatrend in its own right. In fact, energy use has declined almost 40 percent in per unit GDP in the member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development between 1980 and 2010. That includes not only recession years in the early 1980s, 1990s and, of course, the late 2000s, but also historically strong periods of economic integration, liberalization and growth.

Efficiency can be a big part of the answer to our energy challenges. The regulatory and financial communities that decide the fate of our energy future should embrace with this common sense, everyday approach to efficient, clean and reliable economic growth.

Kim Metcalf-Kupres is Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Johnson Controls, a global multi-industrial corporation with established core businesses in the automotive, building and energy storage industries. Metcalf-Kupres has 30 years of experience spanning sales, marketing, strategy and innovation. She is currently responsible for driving profitable growth and advancing marketing and sales capabilities across the enterprise; directing strategy, innovation and business transformation; and leading internal and external communications across the corporation.