Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t the increasing urbanization of our world good for reducing our carbon footprint given the efficiency benefits of greater density? — Simon Vorhees, Oak Park, IL
No doubt, the increased density of big cities leads to less energy use and fewer greenhouse gas emissions per capita. “The biggest factor is transportation, first, simply because trips get shorter, and second, because trips are more likely taken by transit, biking and walking, which are more energy efficient than cars,” says Dan Bertolet of Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think-tank. “Density also leads to less energy use in buildings for two reasons: The housing tends to be smaller, and the shared walls/floors/ceilings in multifamily buildings help conserve heating and cooling.”
To Bertolet’s point, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examining projected emissions from buildings in a variety of urban areas confirms that denser development is more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than weather-proofing or other efficiency-oriented infrastructure upgrades. But researchers warn that increased density alone isn’t enough to drive emissions lower overall given a host of other factors.
“Urbanization is often accompanied by higher incomes, higher economic activity, and more consumption,” says Burak Güneralp, geosciences researcher at Texas A&M and the study’s lead author. “So any gains in per capita consumption due to greater density in urban areas may be exceeded by the increase in per capita consumption due to higher incomes.” Also, says Güneralp, efficiency benefits of increased density can backfire if not directed by thoughtful policy. “For example, too high a density coupled with poor planning can lead to traffic congestions, which can increase fuel consumption hence carbon emissions.”
Another downside of density is the so-called “heat island effect,” where development-crammed, pavement-capped city centers can be ~20℉ hotter than surrounding areas, leading to increased energy consumption as more people crank the air conditioning, elevated emissions of potentially hazardous air pollutants from tailpipes and outflow stacks, and impaired water quality as streams, rivers, lakes and coastal areas get flushed with overheated toxin-laden run-off.
Poorly managed development outside the urban core, AKA urban sprawl, can also counteract the carbon footprint gains of increased density downtown. Sprawling suburban development uses more land per capita and forces people to drive long distances in private cars to get to work, school, and shopping.
“Metropolitan areas look like carbon footprint hurricanes, with dark green, low-carbon urban cores surrounded by red, high-carbon suburbs,” says Chris Jones, a researcher with UC Berkeley’s Renewable & Appropriate Energy Lab. “Unfortunately, while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high-carbon footprint suburbs.”
For his part, Güneralp says careful planning is key. “The important point is that when we think about urbanization and its environmental impacts, we need to consider trade-offs and co-benefits of different approaches as well as the local context,” he concludes. “Particularly in growing cities in the developing world, such efforts can improve the well-being of billions of urban residents and contribute to mitigating climate change by reducing energy use in urban areas.”
What’s Next? Talk with others. Take action.
We are proud of our SOCIAL INTEREST GROUPS—WEEKLY PHONE CALLS to discuss, gain insights, build communities— and help solve some of the most difficult challenges the world has today. Calls are for Members Only (although you can join the first call for free). Not yet a member of The Good Men Project? Join below!
Join the Conscious Intersectionality FACEBOOK GROUP here. Includes our new call series on Human Rights.
Join The Good Men Project Community
All levels get to view The Good Men Project site AD-FREE. The $50 Platinum Level is an ALL-ACCESS PASS—join as many groups and classes as you want for the entire year. The $25 Gold Level gives you access to any ONE Social Interest Group and ONE Class–and other benefits listed below the form. Or…for $12, join as a Bronze Member and support our mission, and have a great ad-free viewing experience.
Register New Account
Please note: If you are already a writer/contributor at The Good Men Project, log in here before registering. (Request a new password if needed).
ANNUAL PLATINUM membership ($50 per year) includes:
1. AN ALL ACCESS PASS — Join ANY and ALL of our weekly calls, Social Interest Groups, classes, workshops, and private Facebook groups. We have at least one group phone call or online class every day of the week.
2. See the website with no ads when logged in!
3. MEMBER commenting badge.
ANNUAL GOLD membership ($25 per year) includes all the benefits above — but only ONE Weekly Social Interest Group and ONE class.
ANNUAL BRONZE membership ($12 per year) is great if you are not ready to join the full conversation but want to support our mission anyway. You’ll still get a BRONZE commenting badge, and you can pop into any of our weekly Friday Calls with the Publisher when you have time. This is for people who believe—like we do—that this conversation about men and changing roles and goodness in the 21st century is one of the most important conversations you can have today.
We have pioneered the largest worldwide conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Your support of our work is inspiring and invaluable.
This post was previously published in Earth Talk and is reprinted with the permission of the authors.
Photo courtesy Shutterstock.