Dense Urban Cities Are At Fault For Climate Change — But Are They Also The Solution?

5th January, 2018 by

Every day we are inundated with more undeniable scientific evidence that climate change is real, and it is happening at a more alarming speed than even the most paranoid among us can comprehend. This is, needless to say, some heavy stuff. While this is a psychological load to carry, the most baffling element seems to be the varying opinions on how to go about fixing the damage. For many, our most densely populated cities seem to be the perfect object of the blame. But urbanists have been claiming for years that cities are in fact not the problem, but more of a solution to global ails.

It might seem like cities are ground zero for waste, pollution and general environmental malfeasance, but in reality, well-functioning cities can increase economic output, per-capita productivity, disposable income and mental/physical health. Much of this hinges on proper infrastructure, as many large-scale cities may still be unable to provide decent public transportation, for example. But according to Vox, compact and walkable cities that are densely populated can actually reduce energy use, which makes for lower overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Dense living conditions = less energy use

Urbanists claim that as people live in closer and closer proximity, the average size of someone’s necessary living environment shrinks. As a result, heating and cooling costs decline, which is good for your wallet and the Earth, as central heating is a power player in climate change.

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, nine researchers attempted to break down how much of a difference urban density could make in the global fight against climate change. Considering that energy use in buildings is only going to rise, how does one go about assessing the choices we make about how much energy we use? The researchers found that buildings were a good proxy for more wide-scale energy consumption. They were able to model various design specifics all the way to the year 2050 on the assumption that global energy use will increase every year until then.

Curbing climate change with close quarters

In addition to the increase in energy use, the researchers also found that urban density is almost certain to decline in all regions from now until 2050, thanks largely to dispersion, or suburban sprawl. Yet in some corners of the world the possibility for an increase in urban density is practically a sure thing. In China, urban popular density is forecast to range somewhere between 10 to 250 people per 100 metres. For high density urban areas efficient installation of cooling and heating technology could result in 7 exajoules (that’s 1018 joules!) per year less energy use.

Reducing exajoules per capita

In conclusion, in the battle to curb climate change, turning to heavily populated cities first might be the answer. If different regions around the world were to commit to a profound reconfiguration of urban development, the results could be massive—more than 300 exajoules saved between now and 2050. This entails a close monitoring of  deep-retrofit technologies (a construction process that emphasises conventional energy conservation) that have a long-term game in place. As with most things regarding climate change many of these innovative designs require mass-market saturation before they can be considered seriously by policy makers.

Nevertheless, it proves to be a fascinating counter to the notion that big cities are the core problem. Well-crafted buildings in dense urban areas could be a crucial tool in curbing energy use per capita. And, as the world continues to urbanise at a rapid rate, we should be looking beyond the city for the problem, and returning right back to its centre for the solution.

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