thoughts on our urban future

Energy Use in Cities

Emissions by Country and by Person - David MacKay "Without the Hot Air"

The world is facing a crisis in regards to getting a handle on, and reducing, our carbon emissions.  On the off chance that you don’t believe in climate change (although this would not be the best opinion to express on one of my posts), then you should instead be motivated by peak oil, the loss of fossil fuels and the future of national energy security, for whatever country you happen to live in.  One way or another, our energy use needs to reduce.

Of course most single individuals can’t begin to get their heads around the nature of the actual problem.  Sure, there are plenty of calculators that let you understand your own energy use, and that’s important.  But there are other forms of energy use brought about by the way we live, work, and play that are not going to be addressed by single individuals.  Energy creation, distribution, and use is as much a national problem as an individual one.

Of course a nation uses energy in many different ways.  And in respect to this blog, and my own particular interests, the shape of a place, or the way a place is designed has a significant impact on its energy use.  Cities use energy differently from other built forms.  If we are to design with energy efficiency in mind, it is important to understand what physical factors lead to increased or decreased energy use.

Since 1993, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has provided medium to long-term projections about global energy use using a World Energy Model (WEM).  The IEA uses the WEM to produce an annual World Energy Outlook which uses a scenario approach to examine future trends in energy with a projection period to 2030 (OECD/IEA, 2010a).  In 2008, the World Energy Outlook devoted an entire chapter to ‘Energy use in cities’ as they project that by 2030, due to growing urban populations, urban energy use will account for nearly three quarters of total energy use worldwide.  They also recognize that factors that influence city energy use are different from the energy uses of the countries the cities are in as a whole (OECD/IEA, 2008).

Understanding energy use in cities is complex.  Indicative data suggests that in 2006, about two-thirds of the world’s energy was consumed in cities, accounting for over 70% of global GHG emissions, even though only around half of the world’s population lived in urban areas.  City residents consume more coal, gas, and electricity than the global average, but less oil.  However, these global totals do not clearly express what is happening in cities country by country.  In industrialized countries, the energy use per capita of city residents is slightly lower than the national average, for example, in the United States, most of the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand.  By contrast, residents in China use almost twice as much energy per capita as the national average due to higher average incomes and better access to modern energy services (OECD/IEA, 2008).  In industrialized countries where most citizens have a high standard of living, city energy consumption per capita is typically less than the national average.  In developing countries where citizens may have a lower standard of living, cities represent technological development and residents of cities in developing countries tend to have higher per capita energy consumption than the national average.

To provide their populations with the myriad of services demanded, cities need large amounts of energy which is predominantly fossil fuel based. Globally, the natural gas and electricity consumed in cities is higher than the average of all fuels, and much higher than the share of the world’s population living in cities.  This is due to the more extensive infrastructure in cities for energy distribution and higher appliance ownership rates in developing cities relative to rural areas.  The oil consumed in cities is smaller than the average of all fuels due to higher penetration of electricity for heating and cooking and wider use of urban public transport networks (OECD/IEA, 2008).

It is not easy to isolate emissions for cities due to the fact that some emissions are generated outside of the metropolitan region for goods or services used within the city and vice versa.  There is irregularity in the accounting of Scope 3 emissions (Kennedy et al., 2009).  Some studies show that if Scope 3 emissions were to be included, the energy use attributed to cities could be as much as double, but these are very difficult to quantify as many Scope 3 emissions can not solely be attributed to a single city alone.

The World Bank has been working on a standardized system of accounting for city GHG emissions and has been collecting and assembling data that has been peer reviewed and is considered comparable (The World Bank, 2010).  This work shows that there are clear and often substantial differences when considering national GHG per capita emissions compared to corresponding cities:

Country/City GHG Emissions (tCO2e/capita) Year
Belgium 12.36 2007
Brussels 7.5 2005
Brazil 4.16 1994
Rio de Janeiro 2.1 1998
Sao Paulo 1.4 2000
Canada 22.65 2007
Calgary 17.7 2003
Toronto Met. Area 11.6 2005
China 3.4 1994
Beijing 10.1 2006
Shanghai 11.7 2006
Tianjin 11.1 2006
Czech Republic 14.59 2007
Prague 9.4 2005
Finland 14.81 2007
Helsinki 7.0 2005
France 8.68 2007
Paris 5.2 2005
Germany 11.62 2007
Frankfurt 13.7 2005
Hamburg 9.7 2005
Stuttgart 16.0 2005
Greece 11.78 2007
Athens 10.4 2005
Japan 10.76 2007
Tokyo 4.89 2006
Jordan 4.04 2000
Amman 3.25 2008
Norway 11.69 2007
Oslo 3.5 2005
Portugal 7.71 2007
Porto 7.3 2005
Slovenia 10.27 2007
Ljubljana 9.5 2005
South Africa 9.92 1994
Cape Town 11.6 2005
Spain 9.86 2007
Barcelona 4.2 2006
Madrid 6.9 2005
Sweden 7.15 2007
Stockholm 3.6 2005
Switzerland 6.79 2007
Geneva 7.8 2005
The Netherlands 12.67 2007
Rotterdam 29.8 2005
Thailand 3.76 1994
Bangkok 10.7 2005
United Kingdom 10.5 2007
Greater London Area 9.6 2003
Glasgow 8.8 2004
United States 23.59 2007
Austin 15.57 2005
Denver 21.5 2005
Los Angeles 13.0 2000
Minneapolis 18.34 2005
New York City 10.5 2005
Portland, OR 12.41 2005
Seattle 13.68 2005

In general you can see from the above table a clear (peer reviewed, certified) comparison of city emissions compared to the national average which proves the above but also leads to some other very interesting conclusions.

Firstly, in the case of American cities, it is clear that urban living (even the worst offenders) still puts the per capita emissions below the national average.  What’s interesting about this is that no one is doing a similar study for all the suburban or rural areas of the country.  If the city numbers are included in the national average, that means that the areas that are ‘not city’ are actually much worse than the national average, exacerbating the nature of the problem and making the performance of the cities even better.

Second, with all of this ‘good news’ about energy use in cities, why does the IEA say that 2/3 of the world’s energy was consumed in cities for only half the population?  Because this shows the staggering impact of the urbanization of developing countries.  The population numbers in these countries far surpasses those in already industrialized nations.  So while for the developed world, urbanization is a way to reduce our already high energy consumption, in the developing world, this explosion of urbanization has a frighteningly detrimental impact on energy consumption.

Third, before anyone get too excited about the numbers, it’s important to remember what we should be aiming for by way of emissions per capita if we are to arrest man’s impact on the climate.  According to David MacKay, in the UK for example, we should be getting that number down to 1 ton per person per year (MacKay, 2009).  Of course the cleaner to energy, the lower the emissions- so it’s partly about reduction and partly about production.  But either way, don’t let small gains fool you as to the true scale and nature of the problem we face, and the level of change that will be needed to overcome it.

So what can be learned from this?  I suppose it entirely depends on the focus of your interest.  For existing cities and urban environments in developed nations, looking at factors influencing reduction of energy use in cities can show a way for us to improve our national consumption.  For those interested in developing countries, it is critical to work into the development of places now, at this stage, ways to try to reduce energy use as much as possible to try and pull back the impact.

As an interesting addition to this article, Lloyd Alter over at Treehugger recently put together a well documented article on the significance of location/urban design on energy use citing many current studies that are out there which helps illustrate part of the reason for energy use reduction in urban areas of developed countries.  It’s well worth a look if you are interested in the subject.


KENNEDY, C. A., RAMASWAMI, A., CARNEY, S. & DHAKAL, S. 2009. Greenhouse Gas Emission Baselines for Global Cities and Metropolitan Regions. Fifth Urban Research Symposium – Cities and Climate Change: Responding to an Urgent Agenda. Marseilles: The World Bank.
MACKAY, D. J. C. 2009. Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, Cambridge, UIT.
OECD/IEA 2008. World Energy Outlook 2008. Paris: International Energy Agency.
OECD/IEA. 2010a. International Energy Agency [Online]. Paris. Available: [Accessed October 2010].
THE WORLD BANK 2010. Representative GHG Baselines for Cities and their Respective Countries. Washington D.C.: The World Bank.
Tagged as: , , , ,


  1. So why would you suspect that Trinidad and Tobago spikes so high in the chart? Why aren’t other similarly-sized islands identified?

  2. I imagine it’s because they must be using a particularly poor emissions intensive method for energy generation, and divided across their population this gives them a high emission per capita? To be honest I just did a quick google search and was unable to find a clear answer, although it was confirmed as being one of the highest per capita emissions on various websites.

  3. I heard in a lecture today that whilst China’s carbon emissions are growing exponentially, the main difference between them and the States (who are still the biggest offenders) is that whilst China’s main source of emissions is industry, the US’ is just people going about their normal lifes. My point here is that we need to differenciate where these emissions are coming from, because that will greatly influence how we go about reducing them.
    Also I came across this rather cool simulation, showing ‘realtime’ CO2 emissions by country, as well as their birth and death rates:

  4. I was not at all surprised by the results shown for Trinidad in Kaylas post.

    Our energy sector and energy related indutries (approx. 40% of GDP) make most of the contribution to these green house gases. This morning I spoke briefly to the Ozone Officer from the Ministry of Planning. She indicated that these per capita figures are usually high. She wasnt surpised either. Aparently when one compares the absolute emissions, we are not too high up on the chart.

    A document titled “Initial National Communication of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” was prepared in 2001. I was informed that the Ministry and the Environmental Management Authority are currently compiling a 2nd communication which should be completed by the end of the year.

    I have a copy of the 1st document which I will browse later and share any relevant thoughts. I also will try to speak to the Climate Change Officer who is directly responsible for these research activities. It would be interesting to find out whats being researched with regard to urban design, land use and the ghgs.

    The total GHG emissions were estimated to be 15,000 Gg (CO2 equivalent). The energy industries contributed 44% of the total emissions, manufacturing and construction industires 38%, transportation 15% and other activities 3%. – Source: 2001 document

    I know that other small island developing states would have similar research initiatives on-going. Maybe they just dont contribute as much to ghg emissions as do Trinidad. Maybe thats why they are not mentioned. I could be wrong.

  5. Hi Kalya,

    I am getting enthusiastic again about this topic – having been exposed to this type of research in the past when still at uni long time ago – the hard way: thermodynamics theory and sociobiology (I studied biology) and what those theories have to say about cities. I have learned a bit more of other things along the way though.

    I am curious about few aspects of the city construct:
    1) Cities as representations of innovation in social organisations – the city as a socio-technological solution and how the people living in a particular city (or section of the city) are subjects of the corresponding socio-technological proposal – this has more to do with cultural change and cultural evolution, evolution as “trend”.
    2) The new paradigms: the “green” cities – I am particularly interested in the way different part of the world are approaching this objective, and in what way we can say there exist certainly radical socio-technological solutions that would change the face of the city and the people who live in as compared to those who are adopting rather incremental socio-technological solutions. Are we tending to be “radical” or are we just maintaining our previous paradigms in terms of use of energy (or other resources) but trending to change sources and or trying being just more efficient?

    Looking at the data you have mentioned it appears to me there is not much room but for incremental agendas. In your opinion, have you found any city solution to be entirely radical not only due to the effect of other radical innovations (e.g. telecom and IT) but by pursuing unique “green” performance that actually change the social organisation and interactions?

    Additionally, you affirm that the urban development and maintenance still requires large amount of energy. Are there examples of radical innovation that minimize the cost of city (or settlement) deployment that is at the same time green?


    • Hi EC, thanks for the comments! I hope to be highlighting some interesting city policy in regards to energy use soon, so please keep coming back to check for relevant posts! One that I’ll be exploring in more detail is NY’s PlaNYC, but feel free to look it up yourself before I present my own opinion of it.

      There are lots of interesting (and some might say radical) ideas being attempted all over the world. Again, things that might show up in future posts in greater detail but certainly it would be worth your time if interested to look up projects like Vauban in Freiberg Germany, Hammarby Sjöstad in Sweden, Norfolk Island Carbon Credit Scheme, Tianjin in China, and Masdar in Dubai.

      I’d be happy for others to post examples that come to them, but that’s a start at least for interesting project that are ‘out there’.

      Behavior change or cultural shift will certainly be a requirement of a low-carbon future. I’m not entirely sure however that anyone has come up with a successful way to implement it yet. I have great faith in humanities ability to adapt to pressing problems, but it’s much harder to get them to change in advance without the pressure!

  6. Thanks Kayla!

    I will start having a look of those ones you are mentioning now and please keep me updated of your posts! This is a topic I would like to explore a bit more.




  1. Featured Article February 18, 2015 | Ever Widening Circles

Leave a Response

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.