Reducing CO2 Emissions Through Smart Growth and Technology

Georgia Tech study shows hybrid vehicles and higher density cities could eliminate future growth of CO2 emissions from autos

A Georgia Tech City and Regional Planning study on climate change, published February 10, 2009 online by Environmental Science and Technology, shows that "smart growth" combined with the use of hybrid vehicle technology could reduce cities' carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions - the principal driver of global warming - significantly by 2050.

According to Brian Stone, associate professor of City and Regional Planning, the research shows that expected levels of CO2 emissions from cars and trucks in 2050 could be reduced back to 2000 levels if the full vehicle fleet was converted to hybrid electric vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius or the soon-to-be released Chevy Volt. This research also found that a doubling of population density in large U.S. cities by 2050 would have a greater impact on CO2 reductions than full hybridization of the vehicle fleet.

Stone's study looked at 11 major metropolitan regions of the Midwestern U.S.  over a 50-year period and took into account three different scenarios:  the use of hybrid vehicles and two different urban growth scenarios through which population density was increased over time, a central component of smart growth planning.

"In this study we looked at two general approaches on how to deal with the challenge of climate change," said Stone.  "One approach is to improve vehicle technology and become more efficient.  We can use less gas and reduce tailpipe emissions of CO2.  The second approach is to change behavior by changing the way we design cities.  We can travel less and take more walking and transit trips."

Stone says he believes it would be possible for virtually all cars on the roads by 2050 to be hybrid electric vehicles, assuming the costs of these vehicles become more competitive with conventional engine technologies.  Today's hybrid electric vehicles can achieve 40 miles to the gallon and higher.

However, even the full hybridization of the national vehicle fleet by 2050 would not meet the CO2 targets identified though the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate change agreement which the United States has signed but not yet ratified.  To meet these global targets, CO2 emissions from all sectors on the U.S. would need to return to 1990 levels or lower.  According to Stone's work, meeting this goal in the transportation sector would require a combination of technological improvements and higher density land use patterns in cities.

"If we can help cities to grow in more compact ways, what we call smart growth, it will help reduce emissions even further by allowing people to travel less often, travel shorter distances when they do travel and take advantage of public transit," said Stone.

The eleven metropolitan regions that were studied include Madison, Wisconsin, Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Indiana, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Detroit, Michigan and Dayton, OH.  In addition to Stone, Dr. Tracey Holloway, Scot Spak, and Adam Mednick also authored the study.

The Georgia Institute of Technology is one of the world's premier research universities. Ranked seventh among U.S. News & World Report's top public universities and the eighth best engineering and information technology university in the world by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, Georgia Tech’s more than 20,000 students are enrolled in its Colleges of Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Liberal Arts, Management and Sciences. Tech is among the nation's top producers of women and minority engineers. The Institute offers research opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students and is home to more than 100 interdisciplinary units plus the Georgia Tech Research Institute.