The Climate Protection-Urban Expansion Nexus

on July 17, 2014 at 3:15 PM

Earth Hour 2010 Recognised Around The WorldToday, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and this urban growth trend continues uninhibited at a fast clip. By 2050 it is projected that 67 per cent of the world’s population will consist of urban dwellers. The United Nations highlights this urbanization trend in its latest 2011 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects :

“Between 2011 and 2050, the world population is expected to increase by 2.3 billion, passing from 7.0 billion to 9.3 billion. At the same time, the population living in urban areas is projected to gain 2.6 billion, passing from 3.6 billion in 2011 to 6.3 billion 2050. Thus, the urban areas of the world are expected to absorb all the population growth expected over the next four decades. (…) Furthermore, most of the population growth expected in urban areas will be concentrated in the cities and towns of the less developed regions. Asia, in particular, is projected to see its urban population increase by 1.4 billion. (…) 78 per cent of the inhabitants of the more developed regions lived in urban areas in 2011, whereas just 47 per cent of those in the less developed regions did so. Urbanization is expected to continue rising in both the more developed and the less developed regions so that, by 2050, urban dwellers will likely account for 86 per cent of the population in the more developed regions and for 64 per cent of that in the less developed regions. Overall, the world population is expected to be 67 per cent urban in 2050.”

The following map – part of the Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project hosted by CIESIN at New York’s Columbia University – identifies those areas of the Earth’s land surface that appear to be urbanized (in red).

Global Urban Extents

urban roman1

Source: Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project, CIESIN at Columbia University

Consequently, cities – in particular megacities – are and will continue to be the hotspots of global economic activity. Unsurprisingly, immigrants on their now often global – instead of regional – migration paths are more likely to settle in cities where they see more opportunity rather than in rural areas. This rapid urbanization trend, however, is not without challenges. It puts tremendous stress on the food supply, water and sanitation infrastructure, and the environment in general. Notably, urban lifestyles contribute significantly to the fact that cities “account for more than 70% of CO2 emissions and two thirds of the world’s energy use today,” according to the Swedish ICT- company Ericsson.

urban roman2 Source: Ericsson

It will be in those cities of the future where sustainable development will depend on environmental management and the implementation of energy efficiency strategies.

Michael Heise, Chief Economist at Allianz SE, made a similar point in a piece authored for The World Economic Forum blog, stating: “The future of the world’s climate will be decided in our cities.” He asks how to make cities carbon-free, identifies a clear trend towards sustainable urban living, calls for necessary investment in new and ‘greener’ infrastructure, and finally concludes:

“If cities are to reduce their carbon footprint, they will need massive investments in their infrastructure. Three-quarters of rich countries’ CO2 emissions come from just four types of infrastructure: power generation, residential and commercial buildings, transport and waste management. Any urban sustainability programme must therefore include a shift to renewable energy and combined heat and power stations, more public buses and trains, cleaner private vehicles, better insulation of offices, hospitals, apartment blocks and other buildings, and smarter management of waste and water – along with much else.”

This is very much in line with a key finding in the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) briefing on The Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The briefing explores the roles cities will play in the future fight against climate change, while also exposing a significant capability gap in industrializing countries:

“The greatest potential for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions may lie in rapidly developing cities in industrialising countries. City-based sectors with potential for mitigation include buildings, energy, transport, and industry. However, many rapidly developing cities lack the financial, technological, institutional and governance capacity required for effective mitigation.”

Given the projected future urbanization trends it will be crucial to tackle these capability gaps first to get any traction on the climate protection front. In this respect, increased public awareness campaigns regarding the implementation of simple energy efficiency strategies appear to be both a simple and relatively cheap first step to create a breeding ground for more and a ‘condition sine qua non’ for reducing cities’ carbon emissions.

The IEA offers 25 Energy Efficiency Recommendations – among them the following, which may also save you some money:

Part of IEA’s 25 Bright Ideas

urban roman3 Source: IEA