By 2050, the Greenest City May Not Be in the First World

Cities might be burning three times more energy in 2050 than they did in 2005—unless they act now.

Currently, more than half of the world’s people live in cities. Given the trend of jobs returning to urban centers, it may not be surprising that by 2030 the world’s cities will be home to 60 percent of the world’s population. Cities are adapting to accommodate the growing population by becoming sustainable and green. In the U.S., these efforts include D.C.’s street car boom and San Francisco’s residents preferring public transportation to driving. European cities like London have implemented climate change initiatives such as increasing the number of parks in the city and retrofitting housing for water and energy efficiency.

Yet assuming that the current rapid pace of population growth continues (and what needs to be done to accommodate those extra residents), cities will be burning three times more energy per capita in 2050 than they did in 2005 despite their “green” efforts. Even with increasing favor toward public transport in the first world’s largest cities, the cities with the greatest opportunity to reduce energy use are those in the still-developing second world, particularly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Chart by Addison Eaton

That is the take-away of a recent two-year analysis of data from the World Bank, the Global Energy Assessment, and the International Association of Public Transport that included information about economic activity, gas prices, population density, and the geography of 274 cities.

According to the study, global energy savings won’t happen without the role of developing countries. Of the potential energy use that could be saved worldwide with the application of energy efficient policies to cities, developed countries can only contribute six percent, while it’s 57 percent in newer urban centers in Asia, and 29 percent for Africa and the Middle East. The fastest growing cities in those regions include Beijing, Delhi, and Lagos, Nigeria.

The reason for the disparity? Cars.

According to Scientific American, the regions with the most potential have not been locked into car dependency and sprawl. Urban and transportation planning may be more of a challenge for developing cities, but those challenges come with an opportunity to avoid mistakes may have made.

In many ways, the effectiveness of urban energy-saving policies depends on the maturity of the cities in question. Cities that have been around for a longer period of time benefit from increasing gasoline prices, which encourage commuters to find alternatives to driving, and urban planners to pursue pedestrian- and bike-friendly planning. But cities in developing countries can instead avoid urban sprawl before it starts, which in turn will diminish overall energy use in the future.

Luckily, these policies are on path to what many city-dwellers have said they’ve wanted in an urban center. China recently entered into a climate-change agreement with the U.S., since the two nations are the world’s largest consumers of energy. Those who are moving back to urban areas are demanding that cities like Los Angeles draft plans for more comprehensive subway systems, light-rail lines, cycling options, and walkability programs in their communities.

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