Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Urbanization is not a solution to climate change

The local newspaper had an article about a thesis by Jukka Heinonen from Aalto University. The English name is "A carbon consumption comparison of rural and urban lifestyles". He compared the metropolitan area and villages and towns of different sizes.

His study found that people in Helsinki metropolitan area have nearly 30% bigger carbon footprint than people living in the rural areas. In rural areas the carbon foot print is less than 9 tons of CO2, vs. almost 13 tons in the metropolitan area. So based on the C02 footprint, urging people to move into more densely built cities to combat climate change is wrong.

Obviously people in rural areas have long distances to travel and their transportation produces 1,96 tons of CO2. The difference to the citizens of the capital is not big, as they produce 1,6 tons. This shows that people in the cities are using their car a lot for commuting and other daily trips. Helsinki does have a small metro and obviously there are buses. But car seems to be the king.

Interestingly, the diagram in the article shows that public transport causes more CO2 (a bigger share of the pie) in rural areas than in towns and cities. How can that be? Did they also count the kids? In many villages the bus only comes twice a day: in the morning to take kids to school and in the afternoon to bring them back? Well, maybe they also count taxi trips to the hospitals and such. Those could bring the averages up a bit.

All the computers and tv's and other gadgets use electricity, and it's also used for heating. Not so much for air conditioning. :-P A third of the footprint is caused by heating and electricity. That's not a big surprise, as there's a long cold and dark season called winter. Using Incandescent light bulbs would make sense in those conditions, but they're phasing out. Might I note that some energy saving light bulbs do not work well in cold.

City dwellers also have higher room temperatures in their apartments than their rural cousins. Often the heating energy bill is part of the rent or maintenance charge, and if it's not measured and billed for each apartment separately, there's no incentive to save energy. In a high-rise, the controls are behind locked doors in the maintenance rooms, and people are not to touch anything. Where as in the country, each homeowner sees the energy bills and can fiddle with the controls as much as he likes to save energy. And almost all houses in the country can be heated by renewable energy from firewood.

The biggest cause for the difference is money. The greedy big-city slickers :-) earn "big bucks" and they also spend the money. They travel abroad, drive around the city to buy things and to see ballet and opera and concerts and eat at fancy restaurants, where they throw a lot of food away. All that driving around on free time and consuming makes a lot of CO2. Apparently Australians have noticed the same thing in their studies.

Where as the income level in the countryside is lower. All those fancy big city things are so far that it takes a whole day to go there so country people don't go see them often even if they had the money. If there's no way to consume, there will be no CO2 either. The footprint of food is similar everywhere, but I can't be sure if they considered gardens people might have in the country side, or meat they got by hunting. Bullets and guns have a high footprint so maybe it evens out. :-)

The study finds that living in a densely built urban city does not automatically mean it's a more ecological than living in a rural area. It's the choices that make the difference.

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