Curbing sprawl to fight climate change

Posted: 19 June 2001

If governments do not act quickly to discourage the building of cities for cars, the international effort to control global warming will become much more difficult, warns a new study by the Worldwatch Institute.

Sprawling urban areas are helping to make road transportation the fastest growing source of the carbon emissions warming the earth's atmosphere. "Local concerns like clogged roads, dirty air, and deteriorating neighborhoods are already fueling a backlash against sprawl. Understanding the role of sprawl in climate change should only speed up the shift towards more parks and less parking lots. We can have healthier, more livable cities and protect the planet from climate change too," says Molly O'Meara Sheehan, author of City Limits: Putting the Brakes on Sprawl.

The United States has the world's most car-reliant cities. US drivers consume roughly 43 per cent of the world's gasoline to propel less than 5 per cent of the world's population. By the end of the decade, themajority of the world's people will live in urban areas. The urban design decisions made today, especially in cities in the developing world where car use is still low, will have an enormous impact on global warming in the decades ahead. Adoption of the US car-centered model, especially in cities where car use is still low, would have disastrous consequences.

Thirty years from now, for example, China, excluding Hong Kong, is expected to have 752 million urban dwellers. If each were to copy the transportation habits of the average resident of the San Francisco area in 1990, the carbon emissions from transportation in urban China alone could exceed 1 billion tons, roughly as much carbon as released in 1998 from all road transportation worldwide.

Sheehan highlights cities that have already proved that a strategy of de-emphasizing cars and providing public transit instead can work. One outstanding example is the city of Curitiba, Brazil. Starting in 1972, Curitiba built a system of dedicated busways and zoned for higher-density development along those thoroughfares - and is now enjoying better air quality and more parks for its 2.5 million people.

City Limtis: Putting the Brakes on Sprawl is available from the Worldwatch Institute.