Explosive urban growth, mainly in Middle East, China and Africa, is a danger to the planet – unless cities can be planned to use energy strategically, says international team.
By Ruth Schuster | Jan. 16, 2015

Cities already consume the lion’s share of global energy and they’re growing fast. Now a groundbreaking new study proposes changes to urban planning and transport policies in order to reduce energy consumption by the urbanizing world.

Urban areas already consume around 76 percent of global energy and generate about 75 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities by now and that proportion is rapidly increasing.

The fastest-growing cities are in Africa, China – and the Middle East, which therefore have the greatest potential to help reduce global energy use through cleverer urbanization. Some experts believe that if climate change is not slowed, better yet reversed, the planet will become uninhabitable.

Based on its vast study of 274 cities, the international team of researchers predicts that if current urbanization trends in China, Africa and the Middle East continue, global urban energy use will more than triple by 2050.

“The overall future of humanity depends on many things, such as energy mix and technological options. But this could make a huge difference,” argues Fritz Creutzig, lead author of the study and head of the working group Land Use, Infrastructures and Transport at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).

South America is less a problem because it’s as urbanized as North America or Europe, Creutzig explained to Haaretz. But in China, Africa and the Middle East (where populations are exploding), urbanization is proceeding fast – so they should do it right.

Until now urban energy use had been considered on a case by case basis. Scientifically the paper’s contribution is to take an overview, and then to break down the world’s cities into eight types based on certain criteria, including population density, affluence – and the domestic price of energy. In short, the drivers of greenhouse gas emissions.
Felix Creutzig: Prices at the pump have to be higher, not lower. Photo by Felix Creutzig

Tip: Jack up oil prices

In all eight city types, urban planning must encourage short commutes between home and work, using public transport, say the researchers, who hail from MCC, Yale University, the University of Maryland and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Researc.

Another key issue is advances in heating technology. (This is perhaps of lesser concern in the Middle East, but cooling uses less energy than heating, Creutzig points out.)

Crucially, good insulation needs to be mainstream. It doesn’t help the planet if one rich dude’s house has brilliantly insulated windows that effectively preserve the heat in the house and everybody else has lousy windows that let the warmth escape.

As for cooling the blazing cities of the Middle East, urban design is perhaps more important than advanced technology, for example by factoring in the direction the wind blows, and channeling the wind through the streets, Creutzig says.

Persuasion is very nice. Hitting people where it hurts – the pocket – is more efficient.

If oil is cheap, it will gleefully squandered. “If one really wants to impact energy use– start with the oil production countries like Saudi Arabia,” suggests Creutzig. “Oil per capita is so cheap that they are one of the two highest-emitting countries in the world, in terms of transport emissions.”
Not shy about using cars in Riyadh. Photo by Bloomberg

Riyadh could achieve the same sort of transport and quality of life with a third of the current level of emissions, he says, and sums up: “The oil producers, including Iran, need to completely stop subsidies for gas oil in their domestic markets.”

Moreover, if gas at the pump costs a fortune, people will crowd into the cities rather than spread out to suburbs and accept long commutes, the team argues. This will be better for the planet in terms of global warming.

Paint it blacker

Meanwhile, in 2014 China moved up to become the world’s second-biggest oil consumer after the United States. By the year 2040, predicts the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China will pass the U.S., with the OECD bloc gasping in their rear. (India with its development issues will continue to remain far behind).

“In China, urban areas are responsible for more than 80 percent of the country’s CO2 emissions because of the high energy demand of these cities combined with China’s dependence on coal,” says co-author Giovanni Baiocchi of the University of Maryland.

Indeed. From 1980 to 2012, Chinese coal consumption rose from around 650 million short tons a year to more than 4,000 and the trend is climbing fast, according to figures from the EIA. (Ditto India, but again the numbers are much smaller.) These trends augur ill for global warming.
The entrance to a small coal mine in China. Photo by Peter Van den Bossche, Wikimedia Commons

“Currently China is emitting a lot of energy from industry,” says Creutzig. “But in 20 years China could move to a higher share of transmission from buildings and transportation.” It’s crucial to lock in clever urban policies now.

In Israel, which is predicted to get drier and hotter with climate change, the Israel Green Building Council already propounds designing new neighborhoods, if not whole cities, with breeze directions in mind for the sake of cooling, and also mandates better insulation in the buildings. Polls show that Israelis solidly approve of the concepts of green building, the council says. Unfortunately, green construction does cost more and they seem reluctant to put their money where their green sentiment is.