If we want to save the planet, we have to get rid of suburbs

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

On Sunday, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on climate change, and the findings are predictably grim.

If we don't take action, the report warns, we can expect "severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."

That's not surprising. But some of the recommendations are. Part of the fix for climate change, the report says, must come in the form of "compact urban forms" and "journey reduction."


The report doesn't elaborate much beyond what these mean, beyond noting they will help reduce oil dependence, traffic congestion and pollution.

But the panel has talked about those two goals elsewhere. In April, one of the IPCC's working groups discussed what compact urban forms and journey reduction actually entail.

The gist: Suburbia as we know it must end.

Below are the four main components for how to dismantle it:

On how to buy stuff and interact with each other:

"— Avoiding journeys where possible – by, for example, densifying urban landscapes, sourcing localized products, internet shopping, restructuring freight logistics systems, and utilizing advanced information and communication technologies (ICT)"


In most U.S. cities, it's now easier than ever to get what you need delivered right to your doorstep in 24 hour or less — or in the case of food, in a matter of minutes, thanks to websites like Seamless, which now has 600 different locations.

But if you drive everywhere to buy stuff or meet up with friends, as many suburbanites still do, you're likely contributing to climate change, the UN says.


On how to get to where you need to go

"— Modal shift to lower‐carbon transport systems – encouraged by increasing investment in public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure, and modifying roads, airports, ports, and railways to become more attractive for users and minimize travel time and distance."


Many U.S. cities are adding new subway or light-rail lines to expand transportation; Washington, D.C., for example, is upgrading its notoriously stingy public transit system with a light-rail option. City officials have also dramatically worked to expand bike use, in recent years — and we're likely to see more in the coming decades.

In the case of suburbs, the UN report suggests that cities that aren't improving public transit connections will accelerate greenhouse gas emissions.


On what to buy to get where you need to go

"— Lowering energy intensity (MJ/passenger km or MJ/tonne km) – by enhancing vehicle and engine performance, using lightweight materials, increasing freight load factors and passenger occupancy rates, deploying new technologies such as electric three‐wheelers"


Thanks to ride-sharing and carpool programs, the need to own a car has been greatly reduced. San Francisco's "Casual Car Pool" system allows Bay Area commuters to pay nothing to get from home to work for the price of driving just a few miles with a couple of strangers.

We're not exactly sure what an electric three-wheeler is.

Anyway, it's difficult to see where suburbs fit into this section, since most were built out of a desire to avoid other people.


On what to put into your new vehicle

"— Reducing carbon intensity of fuels (CO2eq/MJ) – by substituting oil‐based products with natural gas, bio‐methane, or biofuels, electricity or hydrogen produced from low GHG sources. In addition, indirect GHG emissions arise during the construction of infrastructure, manufacture of vehicles, and provision of fuels (well‐to‐tank)"


Gasoline demand has been falling for almost a decade now:

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

But again, this phenomenon is based on more individuals having moved back into the cities. The nation's urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

But that trend is showing signs of reversal: Only 18 cities saw faster growth than suburbs in 2013, Time Magazine reported earlier this year. As of 2010, just 14 percent of Americans living in major metropolitan areas lived in urban cores, according to New Geography. And more than two-thirds still live in suburbs.


The UN is aware of the amount of effort that will be needed to get people to give up the dream of two SUVs and white picket fence. "System infrastructure efficiency and transport demand reduction options would require human interventions and social change as well as public investment," they write in the April draft.

Still, the UN's suggestions suggest that nothing less than a radical transformation will be required to combat an increasingly radicalized climate change.


Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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