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Suburban Living the Worst for Carbon Emissions New Research — Global Issues

Suburban Living the Worst for Carbon Emissions New Research — Global Issues

Sabrina zwick
  • Opinion by Sabrina Zwick (tokyo)
  • Inter Press Service

There is speculation that the COVID-19 pandemic will slow this trend towards urbanization, but I think it is unlikely to stop it.

Cities remain the main location for employment opportunities, education and cultural offerings, and the continued rise in house prices in many European cities over the past year indicates that city life is still in high demand. .

Some find this trend worrying because – globally – urbanization has made the climate crisis worse, and cities are often blamed for increasing energy use and carbon emissions.

The World Bank estimates that 80% of global GDP is produced in urban areas. This translates into increased income, consumption and associated emission levels.

It is certain that a considerable part of the global carbon budget will be used to build new infrastructure, especially in fast-growing cities. Other emissions take place as cities expand and land use changes, turning vegetation into urban land.

Copenhagen and Amsterdam, for example, are great examples of cities that make good use of these compact structures and offer a low-emission lifestyle.

What could be better for the climate?

Rural houses are surrounded by nature, but are often larger than urban houses or apartments and the people who live there need cars to get around. Homes in the city are typically smaller and offer short distances, but also a world of shiny consumer goods, take out, and entertainment options – at least in non-COVID times.

But what does this mean for individual carbon footprints: are they larger in the city or in the countryside, if the income level is similar?

To answer this question, my colleague Pablo Munoz and I looked at the consumption habits of over 8,000 households in Austria. We grouped them into urban, semi-urban and rural areas, estimated their carbon footprint, and found that people in urban areas had the smallest carbon footprint on average.

Residents of semi-urban areas had the largest carbon footprint, with those in rural areas in between.

The main difference we found is that the city dwellers we analyzed had lower direct emissions from transportation, heating and cooking. They had more indirect emissions, that is to say emissions rejected upstream of the production chain – by factories producing televisions for example.

But all in all, we found that emissions from city dwellers were still relatively low. Even controlling for other socio-economic factors including income, we found that people living in semi-urban areas in Austria emit around 8% more CO? than those in cities, and those in rural areas about 4% more.

This evidence that an urban lifestyle is the least carbon intensive in Austria is replicated by other studies for high income countries in Europe (such as the United Kingdom and Finland).

But that doesn’t mean it applies everywhere: Research shows that urbanization in low-income countries typically increases emissions.

This does not mean that we should discourage urbanization in these countries. One of the main reasons for this pattern is the income gap between urban and rural areas in these countries: higher urban incomes lead to increased consumption and the resulting emissions.

In high-income countries, on the other hand, the income gap between urban and rural areas is much smaller because consumption levels are high everywhere. So, in countries like Austria or the UK, living in cities tends to be better for the climate, as dense living can reduce emissions from transport and heating.

Curse or cure

Does this mean that urbanization is good or bad in the long run? There is no simple answer to this. The link between urbanization and income, to take just one factor, is very complex.

Globally, we know that urbanization has been a factor in increasing emissions. But results like ours give hope that urban living is the sustainable option after all, at least once countries reach a certain level of income and when they do it right.

The key to this is a strong commitment to climate action and its swift implementation. Governments around the world should make the most of the high densities, connectivity, accessibility, and land in urban areas – and plan cities and their surrounding areas in smart and climate-friendly ways.

But efforts should not be limited to cities, as semi-urban areas are the worst in terms of emissions. This is especially true in light of rising housing prices in cities and a post-COVID digitized world, which are making suburbs increasingly attractive to many of us.

There are many ways to reduce emissions: good public transport and cycle lane systems, short distances to basic infrastructure, efficient buildings, and green heating and cooling systems are all proven ways to reduce costs. carbon.

In addition, carbon pricing can create incentives for greener value chains and more sustainable consumption. When planning land use, rural-urban migration trends and other behavioral aspects need to be taken into account.

The way urban and rural areas are designed will affect people’s choices – such as their preferred mode of transport – and associated emissions.

But ultimately, as individuals, we determine our own consumption patterns and our carbon footprint can be large or small, whether we live in cities or elsewhere.

This work was partially supported by the Austrian Climate Research Program (ACRP) of the Austrian Climate and Energy Fund through the project “Innovative climate policy instruments to reduction consumer-based emissions to complete territorial emission reduction efforts” .

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