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Urban development for a sustainable world

Nicholas Bardsley leads the Masters programme in Climate Change and Development at Reading University. In an exclusive guest blog, he highlights the important relationship between urban development and energy efficiency, and explains why it is a fundamental issue when planning for a sustainable future.

Where does a car do the most miles in a year – the USA, UK or Ireland? Perhaps surprisingly a car’s mileage is similar in the USA and Ireland, about 30 per cent higher than in the UK. And household mileage has been increasing fast recently in the Republic whilst it has been constant or falling in the UK and USA.

Commentators have linked Ireland’s increased car use to its relaxed spatial planning, which has led to very spread-out development.

That means people use their cars more and make longer trips, so more energy is used and more CO2 emitted for the same lifestyle. This is a good example of how households and business energy use depends on the social environment.

But the energy needed for street lighting, electricity, roads, sewerage, water, refuse, postal services and public transport infrastructure expands, so public sector energy use also increases, making this a key issue for sustainability.

Energy might be saved across the board if development is made more compact. Spatial planning and greenbelt legislation are the usual ways to attempt this. Another proposal is to shift taxes onto land values, so the owner of a plot is taxed according to its rental value.

Look around your area and you may see many vacant plots that have been empty for years. Under a land tax this costs the owners money – more money the closer the plot is to the town centre, where prices are high. These costs pull in development, reducing the need for driving and infrastructure.

None of this is straightforward. Greenbelts can lead to a development leapfrogging the protected area, making matters worse. Under Land Value Tax, more private land might be put to its most profitable use. This might be more efficient but possibly also require more development, which leads to the question: what would be the overall effect on our energy use and the environment?

These kinds of questions, which involve the relationships between energy, the economy and society, are typical of issues students have to think through on the MSc course in Climate Change and Development at the University of Reading. More examples come from climate change policy. If we abandoned fossil fuels tomorrow, for example, it’s hard to see how we could all heat our homes.

Effective action on carbon can cause hardship unless other action is taken at the same time, such as promoting energy efficiency and renewables. But equally, if we pursue efficiency without any carbon policies, we might not make the energy savings you would expect, because more efficient appliances are cheaper to use, and may get used more.

Back to transport. Without fossil fuel, the time it takes to get from A to B would increase, about 65-fold for overseas travel. That is, the world would become much larger since fossil fuels have made it much smaller. Debates over energy use are far-reaching and policy measures cannot be considered in isolation, because they may have different effects depending on other elements of the policy mix. This requires holistic thinking and ensuring we can see the connection across a broad range of issues.  

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