Researchers Show Link Between Urbanization and Reduced Global Energy Use

Researchers Show Link Between Urbanization and Reduced Global Energy Use

A new collaborative study led in the U.S. by the University of Maryland suggests that urban planning and transport policies can limit the future increase in cities’ energy use by about one-quarter, from 730 exajoules (or EJ, a standard measurement unit for city-scale electricity consumption) to 540 EJ in 2050. The limitation of future consumption is particularly critical, as current urbanization trends suggest that world-wide urban energy use will more than triple by 2050.

The study, led by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates that cities in developing countries throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East have the highest potential for energy savings through urbanization – 86 percent of the world’s total potential savings. In order to achieve these savings however, current and future urban planning methodologies must focus short commutes between home and work places – driven by mutually supportive public transportation and land use development.

Energy use of world cities. Energy use increases with economic activity, especially for low levels of GDP per capita. High population density cities and higher fuel prices are associated with lower energy use.

The team of researchers behind this groundbreaking study, including Giovanni Baiocchi, an associate professor in University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences, together with researchers at the MCC, Yale University, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, also identified mitigation options in “mature” cities (those whose land use and transportation systems have been fully developed). For example, higher fuel prices in the United States would enable more compact development in eco-centric and progressive cities like Boulder, Colorado.    

"Using global data on cities we produced a typology of cities based on their energy use and associated emissions, useful at tailoring mitigation measures for different cities,” says Baiocchi, lead U.S. researcher on the study. One key message extracted through this approach is that the eight different types of cities found in the study each need different mitigation policies to maximize their impact on energy consumption. 

One particular area of focus for the multinational research team is China, whose urban areas are responsible for more than 80% of the country’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

“Fast developing cities with low fuel prices and high heating demands have the largest potential for reducing emissions,” explains Baiocchi. “This is particularly evident for energy-intensive cities in China that are located in colder climates. The high-energy demands of these cities combined with China's dependence on coal, greatly contributes to the pollution problems we see today. It is important that China continues to target inefficiencies and invest in energy conservation.”

The study, titled “A Global Typology of Urban Energy Use and Potentials for an Urbanization Mitigation Wedge,” used data sets from the World Bank and the Global Energy Assessment and modeled the development of 274 cities, representing all city sizes and regions worldwide. “Through this study we provide critical new insights into how different types of cities can most effectively mitigate the effects of climate change,” says Felix Creutzig, lead author of the study and head of the working group Land Use, Infrastructures and Transport at the MCC. “The mitigation potential is greatest in rapidly growing cities and in cities where infrastructure is not set in place.”

Source: Andrew Roberts, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences

January 13, 2015

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