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Big Cities Are Starting to Help the Environment

Cities Show Reduced Energy, Water, and Resource Use Per Capita

Photo: Chris Barbalis

Of the world’s 7 billion-plus people, more than half live in cities. Ninety percent of these cities are in coastal areas, threatened by climate-induced sea-level rise and powerful storms. The United Nations’ latest projections put the world’s population at 10.9 billion by 2100, an increase of more than 3 billion people over current levels. This is a staggering increase, but it’s almost half a billion smaller than the UN’s projection just two years earlier, in 2017. This trend of shrinking forecasts is encouraging.

As early as 2050, per the UN’s estimates, 70 percent of people will live in cities. The thought of producing food, providing fresh water, and generating energy for this additional 40 percent growth is daunting. The planet is already facing a mass biodiversity extinction crisis. How can it possibly be reversed when we humans, the cause of this crisis, are increasing by billions? For there to be any hope, we are going to have to do a lot more with a lot less in the coming years. 

Dr. Karen Seto, a geographer at Yale University, sees increasing urbanization as a big part of the solution. All urban dwellers occupy less than 3 percent of the earth’s land surfaces but currently consume two-thirds of total energy and create 70 percent of carbon emissions.

As urban density grows, per-capita consumption falls. A 2011 report from the office of the Mayor of New York found that the average New Yorker consumes 74 percent less water, uses 35 percent less electricity, and creates 45 percent less garbage compared to the average American.

The real promise, according to Joe Watson, senior vice president at the Wildlife Conservation Society, lies in fostering anti-sprawl development. He champions policies to create urban beauty, livability, and low-carbon buildings; programs to improve public transportation while disincentivizing private car ownership; and investments to make cities hubs of technological innovation and crusaders for conservation and sustainability. Once the poorest urbanites take a few steps up the economic ladder (a common effect of moving to cities), the relationship between economic growth and consumption ceases to be linear. 

Cities offer opportunities for better education and employment, especially for females. Concomitant with seizing these opportunities, women become more autonomous and birth rates fall. These positives of urban density need strong city leadership and incentivizing policies to maximize their impact. C-40 cities, a network of the world’s mega-cities (94 in number), are collaborating, sharing information and driving meaningful, measurable, and sustainable action on the climate crisis.

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