New numbers prove smart growth reduces CO2, cost-effectively

report cover

For the most part, the climate change establishment - whether in government, industry, or the environmental community - has ignored the potential of land use strategies to provide significant reductions in carbon emissions while also producing multiple other environmental, economic, and societal benefits. There have been grudging, passing mentions, usually at the end of some long report or other mainly about cap and trade schemes, power plants and fuel efficiency, but that's been about it.

Now, reducing power plant emissions and increasing vehicle fuel efficiency are hugely important strategies, as are getting more from renewable energy sources and green buildings, for that matter. But how's that working out so far, you might ask? The best that one can say is that the recession has driven carbon emissions down for the moment, and there is hope for incremental legislative progress. Meanwhile, the US continues to lag far, far behind Europe in controlling emissions.

Suddenly people who two years ago wouldn't give smart growth advocates the time of day are talking about things like transit-oriented development and growth boundaries (if they still haven't caught on to revitalization and walkability, unfortunately), and mainstream enviros are beginning to seek ways to increase neighborhood density instead of opposing it. People are looking to the coming federal transportation bill as a way to implement California's innovative smart-growth planning measures on a national scale. While you still won't hear much about any of this from the Really Big Thinkers on climate, it's happening in spite of them.

Which is a pretty long introduction to a new report that will make smart growth harder to ignore as a carbon-reducing strategy. In particular, the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP) released a study last Friday documenting how comprehensive application of smart growth best practices and improved transportation choices can significantly reduce transportation emissions at a cost savings to society. The report makes a strong case for investing a portion of cap-and-trade revenues in smart growth.

For a summary of the report's key findings, go here.


Dollars and Sense!

It's fantastic that the report is as strong on the fiscal efficiency benefits of smart growth and new urbanism as on their ability to lower carbon emissions. Here are a few highlights from the jump (at NRDC):

Sacramento projects savings of 7.2 MMT of CO2 by 2050, while saving $9 billion in infrastructure costs and $380 million in annual consumer fuel costs,yielding a net economic benefit of almost $200 per ton of CO2 saved.

Portland, Oregon's investments in bicycle infrastructure will reduce emissions by 0.7 MMT of CO2, with net economic benefits of more than $1,000 per ton CO2 saved.

At the state level, Georgia could save more than $400 billion over 30 years, while saving 18 MMT of CO2 with strategic investments in transit, freight and travel demand management (e.g., four day work weeks, telecommuting, carpooling). In Atlanta, the Atlantic Station redevelopment project is reducing residents' need to drive by more than 30 percent [note: much more, according to data that I have seen; the authors are being conservative], which would cut 0.6 MMT of CO2 over 50 years, and generate $30 million per year in much-needed local tax revenue.

For a revealing look at what these savings means at the more intuitive scale of the neighborhood — and the fire station — see the excellent case study from Charlotte in CNU's new publication on walkable urbanism and its emergency response benefits. When I spoke last week at the Midwestern regional meeting of the Institute for Transportation Engineers, I bumped into a City of Charlotte engineer who was presenting these findings (which show Charlotte can safely provide emergency service in traditional compact walkable neighborhoods at nearly 1/5 the cost required in the most sprawling areas), a sign that connected street networks are now a major part of the Charlotte playbook and an example whose influence is spreading.

For now, the Charlotte findings are buried in a PDF (see p. 8) but we'll put it on our list to make them more accessible on the web.

Katherine Gregor's picture


I'm going to quote from this blog posting in my article next week in the Austin Chronicle, also to be posted to

Katherine Gregor

Staff Writer, Austin Chronicle

reducing CO2

The Really Big Thinkers that you refer to would, I presume, include Al Gore. I admire Gore. His book and movie version of the Inconvenient Truth earned him the Nobel Prize. He deserves the Nobel, but he disappoints by ignoring the environmental benefits of urban living. Yes, converting to efficient light bulbs and wind energy are important partial solutions. But the major difference between Europe and the US in energy consumption results from settlement pattern. And Gore almost never talks about it.
This seems strange because he did talk about smart growth and new urbanism as Vice President, but then his pollster and political advisers told to avoid the topic during the 2000 campaign. That campaign is long over and its time Gore reengages on the benefits of urbanism. After all urbanism is the most convenient remedy to the Inconvenient Truth.


Well said, John. Al's influence is probably waning, but it would be nice to have him back on our side.


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