Cities are key to global carbon limits

Harvard’s Ed Glaeser was interviewed by the European Magazine. Ed is author of the excellent Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. There are many important points, including the possibility that development policy could significantly reduce the per capita energy intensity of the ongoing urbanization. The future much richer Chinese peasant could require an energy footprint more like Hong Kong than Houston.

Such an ultradense pathway is not a sure thing – just look at the sprawl of Beijing and Shanghai, which have less than one tenth the density of NYC and half the density of LA. The challenge for the West is to help the Chinese, Indians et al achieve the French path (of 80% nuclear electricity).

Here’s an excerpt on that point:

The European: Could moving people into cities be a sustainable solution for emerging economies dealing with the issues resulting from growth?

Glaeser: From an environmental standpoint it seems very clear that it needs to be done. But you have got to do it in a way that makes sense: Part of the issue with African poverty is that as long as people remain rural, they will be whipsawed by every environmental hazard that comes along. By engaging in subsistence agriculture, there is no way to for them to take advantage of the global trading system. I want to make it clear that I am not an environmental expert, but some regions may end up losing as a result of changes of the environment and others regions may end up benefitting. Areas that now are cold may end up being easier to grow on just as areas that are hot now may end up being worse to grow on. If you are part of the global trading system, you will be able to take advantage of wheat grown in Canada or in Siberia. If you are not, if you are a subsistence agriculture country, then every famine that hits rural Nigeria will leave thousands dead. It is easy to see the benefit that comes from a transition out of agriculture towards a more urban future.

Concerning the environmental impact, it is clear that if everybody remains in rural poverty, there won’t be much going on in terms of carbon emissions. But I don’t think we can possibly hope for that. If you compare countries that are more than 50% urbanized with countries that are less than 50% urbanized, incomes are five times higher in the more urbanized countries and infant mortality rates are less than a third in the more urbanized countries. The path of rural poverty really is awful. But there are different paths and if for example the great growing economies of India and China see their carbon emission levels rise to the level seen in sprawling United States, global carbon emissions will go up by 120%.

But if they stop at the level seen in hyper-dense but still prosperous Hong Kong, global carbon emissions go up by only 25%. So, density is a way of managing growth so that it involves less carbon emissions in the future.

Highly recommended. Read the whole thing »