IPCC Working Group III’s New Urbanization Chapter. Karen Seto

A video accompanying the Shell Scenarios makes reference to a sobering projection: the world is effectively adding a new city of a million people every week and will continue to do so for much of the 21st century. The growth will occur mostly in Asia, and could add as many as four billion people to a world struggling to balance growing demands for energy with growing needs to mitigate climate change.

In a talk added a week before the conference, Karen Seto, professor and associate dean of Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, spoke about the opportunities for positive change lying behind those challenges. Just two days before her talk, Seto had returned from the IPCC convention in Berlin, where she presided as coordinating lead author of a chapter on “Human Settlements, Infrastructure, and Spatial Planning” that appears for the first time in the Mitigation volume of the Fifth Assessment Report.

Seto explained the five-year process that led to the new AR5 chapter on “urbanization” and outlined its principal goals. A unifying concept was that mitigation in all key economic sectors of future cities—transportation, energy production, housing and manufacturing—could be simultaneously addressed with bundled policies and integrated solutions she pointed out, since the infrastructure of these cities does not yet exist. Building hundreds of urban centers from scratch provides an unprecedented opportunity to design in ways that can lock in energy savings and sustainable behaviors for generations to come.

Another finding of the chapter underlines the global challenge of mitigation. On the one hand, statistics show that urban residents in wealthy countries—so-called Annex 1 countries that have committed to reductions of greenhouse gases—consume less energy per capita than their rural counterparts in the same countries. On the other hand, urban residents of developing countries (non-Annex 1) appear to be less energy efficient than their rural countrymen. These differences, explained Seto, are really an accident of accounting. In reality, energy use in the large industrial cities of developing countries is driven by production of consumer goods for urban residents of the developed world. Annex I countries have thus been importing energy efficiency by offshoring production of their consumer goods to the developing world. Such hidden linkages between energy use and consumption patterns are a reminder that we really are all residents of a global village.

August 8, 2014